Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who knew?: Crunchy Cons (review)

Crunchy Cons
by Rod Dreher
Crown Forum, 2006

For the past year, I've been reading Rod Dreher's posts on American Conservative. I came to Dreher's column after I read the account he wrote of his sister's battle with cancer in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming which I wrote about on this blog  nearly a year and a half ago. He was honest. He held himself accountable. He put family first. Faith was the center of his life. What was there not to like?

Of course, there was the small fact that he was a conservative. And I don't really cotton to conservatives. Or was this the bane of life after fifty, I thought? You get old. And stodgy. And, well ... conservative. But still I returned to read (sometimes two times a day because Dreher is just that prolific) about Iraq and welfare moms and gay marriage and the Catholic sex abuse scandal and education and Pope Francis and Dante's Inferno and just about any other contemporary cultural and political issue you could name. (When you read his column, be sure to stop the comments, as well--they're often every bit as engaging as Dreher.) What else was left, then, but to order his other book, Crunchy Cons, written several years earlier? I was a bit surprised that a hard copy was only available used, but my book (excellent condition! like new!) arrived a week later from a Goodwill store somewhere out East.

Crunchy Cons begins with Dreher's Crunchy-Con Manifesto, ten tenets for this new breed of conservative. The principals cover materialism, economics, culture, the environment, aesthetics, education, religion, family life and go something like this: "We believe that modern conservatism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper." I found little to disagree with (except the homeschooling emphasis, but that's just because I'm a tetchy public school teacher, I'm guessing, and I could easily modify the "homeschool" part by substituting "parents' direction and involvement in all things schooling") and I'm guessing many of my liberal friends would agree with Dreher's view of our world. This is the world of reading families, nursing moms, and foodies. Of turning off the TV and church on Sunday and eating organic. My world.

My husband, ever the philosophy student, would point out that this is conservatism in the true sense, with a small "c"--the conservatism that promotes tradition and community and the greater good. Not the Conservatism-with-a-capital-C that plagues informs public discourse today with its emphasis on big business and trickle down and tea parties. And I'd probably reply I don't care about all that--I just like Dreher's thoughtful probing of American culture, our shifting values, and how we can right the ship.

Good gosh! A conservative? Who knew?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Listen to the Mockingbird

Nearly ten years ago I was captivated by Charles Shields unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird. To write Mockingbird: A portrait of Harper Lee, Shields spoke to Lee's friends and some friends of friends, piecing together a fascinating glimpse of a writer who had became all but a recluse. But here's the thing. Shields gives us a Harper Lee who was anything but solitary. She entertained closed friends, went out to dinner with her sister Alice Lee, visited high school students, stopped at the casino--in short, she was a woman of a certain age going about life in a quiet Southern town.
Medal of Freedom recipient: 2007

What Lee did withdraw from was the literary life and all things Mockingbird. She never published another book (her second one was supposedly stolen in a burglary) and was disillusioned after Truman Capote snubbed her contribution to In Cold Blood.  Lee reportedly told a close friend, "I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."  Lee didn't even participate in the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking novel, nor did she condone the Disney-fication of her hometown Monroeville with its Radley Fountain grill, tote bags and tee shirts, and Calpurnia's Cookbook. There was no Larry King or Oprah for this legend (although she did meet with Oprah once for lunch in a private suite at The Four Seasons). Some think Nelle Harper Lee eschewed the public eye because her novel was too frank, that she spilled too many family secrets and lived with that regret. Readers tend to take the novel's young narrator, Scout, as Lee's own voice--an irrepressible, sensitive tomboy bursting with enthusiasm for life. But she told Oprah during that lunch, "I'm really Boo", the mysterious town lunatic (link).

Earlier this month The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee written by Marja Mills--and supposedly authorized-- was released to a kerfuffle. Lee's sister Alice confirmed the book's authenticity; her lawyer refuted that the sisters' agreed to the interviews, insisting that when Mills moved next door to the Lees and befriended them, she did so under false pretenses. You can read the flurry of letters back-and-forth here (link). What most reviewers agree upon is that Mills' Nelle Harper Lee is fairly close to Shield's and we readers will probably read little that's new. But despite the book's controversial publicity (or perhaps because of it), The Mockingbird Next Door is sure to find its way to the top of bestseller lists just like its predecessor.

 Writer Garrison Keillor said about Lee's early aversion to public attention, "Here is a woman who knew when to get off the train" (link). Maybe we should respect that woman's decision and let her walk away with dignity.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Namaste, Ms. Elliott: Zen Under Fire (review)

Zen Under Fire 
by Marianne Elliott
Sourcebooks 2013

 Marianne Elliott documented human rights violations in Afghan prisons and police stations and trained local law enforcement officers and prosecutors about human rights and Afghan law. Her life, first in Kabul, and then in Herat, was one of contrasts. Rules and procedures narrowed her freedom: she needs a driver or security officer with her whenever she travels outside her UN guest house, she can't walk alone on the streets, her dress and demeanor must at all times show respect for Afghan culture. But in countless other ways, Elliott's circumstances open her to rich experiences: the camaraderie of UN and NGO workers from around the world, the priceless friendship of her Afghan co-workers, and the indelible mark the Afghans she served left on her heart. Sometimes frightened, often edgy, occasionally endangered, and always driven, Elliott struggles to maintain balance in her life--she knows that a shell-shocked, stressed out aid worker would be less than effective.

Before arriving in Kabul, Elliott practiced yoga and meditation in her native New Zealand, and she continues during her time in Afghanistan. At first, her practice is almost mechanical. Unnerved by a phone call or a meeting, she'd head to her mat, do some simple breathing exercises and several sun salutes. While the stressful situation was often the same, it was Elliott who was different. Yoga becomes both her refuge and strength: "Yoga is helping me little by little to trust my breath and my body, and to loosen my tight grip on control. I am starting to get glimpses of what yoga might be able to teach me ..."

What I like so much about Zen Under Fire was the author's transparency. As an American who only hears about aid workers on the news and has no experience with life in a war zone, it can be easy to elevate those who serve to sainthood. But Elliott struggles with jealousy and anger and helplessness
and self-doubt. Through fits and starts, she gives herself permission to sit with those feelings, acknowledging them instead of repressing them, and realizes "it is a kind of yoga, this approach. It is transforming my ability to be in the presence of profound suffering without closing my heart or leaping too quickly into action." Maybe most important of all, she learns that sometimes it is more important to be a heartstrong woman than a headstrong one.

Yoga and meditation can sometimes seem like an "add-on" to our modern lives--something that might be nice to have, but certainly isn't a necessity. But Marianne Elliott teaches us that living the mindful life allows us to experience the true depth and breadth this life has to offer. Even in a war zone.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Love wins: Small Blessings (review)

Small Blessings (NetGalley DRC)
Martha Woodruff
release date: August 2014

The worst thing you can do in this life is turn away from it, my dear. 

Professor Tom Putnam has patiently cared for his wife Marjory for twenty years; suffering from
disabling anxiety and depression, Marjorie rarely leaves their home except to visit her psychiatrist. When Tom must teach class, his mother-in-law Agnes watches over Marjory at home. The idyllic setting--a small Virginia college with its elementary school, book shop, cottages for staff, and homes for faculty--contrasts the chaos that is the Putnam's home life. To this sad little scenario, add the college's new Book Shop manager whose tender spirit draws people (including Marjory) to her like moths to a flame, a displaced orphan arriving on a train unexpectedly, then toss in a tragedy that brings them all together and you've got a lesson in appreciating the small things in life.

Martha Woodroof's panoply of minor characters was distracting at times: warring faculty members, a peevish probate lawyer, stand-offish college president, bumbling village constable. I found their stories distracting at times and unnecessary. I mean, do we really need the backstory of two alcoholics? The plot took unexpected twists and turns, if you like a meandering sort of tale. But in the end, Woodroof's first novel with its message of hope and redemption was itself a small blessing.

Martha Woodroof has been an arts and culture contributor at NPR. You can read more about the writer at her website (link).

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stopping the story: WBN and me

I woke up this morning to the sad news that World Book Night had suspended operations because the event was too costly to continue, this despite "significant financial and time commitment from
WBN 2012: Glass Castle
publishers, writers, booksellers, librarians, printers, distributors, shippers." It seems that the book community and individual donors had come together to support WBN, but that the organization lacked "significant, sustainable outside funding."

For those of you who aren't familiar with World Book Night, it is was an incredible event. Writers and publishers agreed to donate titles that were specially printed for WBN and distributed by "Book Givers" on April 23 all over the country--over one and a half million books in since 2012. A-maz-ing.

I am a high school English teacher in a very small (traditionally) blue collar suburb outside a moderately-sized city in the Midwest. Pretty much middle America. But I feel as though every year I must dangle some sort of carrot to get my kids to read literature ... and then I ask them to read some more. Sometimes it's incredibly rewarding, but other times not so much. So when I heard about World Book Night three years ago (thank you, Denice!) I worried whether or not giving at school was really a good idea. After all, maybe the folks downtown at the soup kitchen where I volunteered would be more appreciative. Or maybe even at the bus stop at the end of my street? But books and teens and I have walked this readin' road for over twenty years and we'll be walkin' it several more, so despite my hesitation, it seemed like a good fit.

WBN 2012: Glass Castle
Because everyone needs a book of their own. (Or, if you're me a couple thousand books of my own, but that's another story.) A book to smell and riffle through and maybe mark in and dog ear and--most important of all--write one's own name in the front cover. I fussed and fretted over the titles, but, in the end, trusted the Universe to get the non-fiction books I chose into the right hands. And maybe the kids would read the book, and maybe they wouldn't. At least not right now. But some day, that title might speak to them.

The over 600 comments on Facebook are down-hearted; I'm guessing most are former Givers like me.  More than a few have suggested Kickstarter. (If Lavar Burton can do it for Reading Rainbow, why not someone for WBN?!) The organization will remain staffed through the summer to continue social media, so you can still check them out here.

Frank Herbert said it perfectly (my husband will appreciate this reference!): "There's no real ending. It's just the place where you stop the story." So World Book Night might be stopping the story but with over one and a half million books out there, "there's no real ending."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Little People Big World: the Original

The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb (NetGalley ARC)
Nicholas Rinaldi
release date: August 2014

I know little of freak shows or P.T. Barnum, other than the circus. My exposure to little people came first from The Wizard of Oz as a child--pretty exploitive, I'm guessing--, and, more recently, the reality show Little People, Big World. So a historical novel about General Tom Thumb of P.T. Barnum's great museum in New York City sounded interesting. Author Nicholas Rinaldi alternates the voice of Charles Stratton (aka Tom Thumb) and his wife Lavinia Warren.

We meet Charles Stratton at age five when P.T. Barnum approaches his parents, wanting to exhibit the little boy at his American Museum. With few prospects--no special education, no Americans with Disabilities Act--Charlie's parents sent him off with Barnum, father in tow as chaperone. Stratton has a
tutor, Mr. Kwink, and he finds another family with the Snake Charmer, the Albino Lady, Nellis, the man without arms, Mary Darling, the house magician. Barnum teaches the young performer, now dubbed General Tom Thumb, how to sing, dance, and mime. And life for this little person revolves around Barnum, his museum, touring, and performing with the other "exhibits". Lavinia enters the scene when Charles is twenty-one, the attraction is immediate, and the rest, as they say, is history. In many ways, the Strattons' lives were the original reality show, pre-dating Matt and Amy Roloff (link) by well over 150 years.

The conceit of Nicholas Rinaldi's novel is that Charles Stratton, as Tom Thumb, acted as a Union spy during the civil war. Tom Thumb's extensive travels (one tour was estimated to be over 55,000 miles by land and sea) provided the perfect cover. So in Rinaldi's world, Tom travels, meets and greets his admirers, and every so often is given an envelope with the pass word, "Greenwood" and then passes it along to a courier. Interesting idea. Totally fiction from what I could read online. But perhaps most disappointing of all, never really explored by Rinaldi, other than the pick-up and drop-off.

The novel is full of walk-ons by an incredible number of important people in the 1860s: Walt Whitman, John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln. But the writing reads more like a history book or encyclopedia than a novel, and the incredibly colorful characters remained wooden and flat. For charming, read this account of Tom Thumb and his wife, Sketch of the Life. Personal appearance, character, and manners of  Charles S. Stratton, the man in miniature, known as Tom Thumb (link) written in 1874. It's the "account of Remarkable Dwarfs, Giants, and other Human Phenomena, of Ancient and Modern times". I think you'll be just as satisfied as reading this novel.

So how does the movie stack up: The Book Thief

Rotten Tomatoes: 46%. IMBD: 7.6/10. Odd discrepancy, maybe. Of course, the focus of Rotten Tomatoes is more movie critics--I read just a couple and, for the most part, they were disappointing: "Death as a tooth fairy", "not a little dull", "no real feeling for the catastrophe". The blurb on the site reads, "A bit too safe in its handling of its Nazi Germany setting ..." And it was--too "safe". As I wrote about in my review (link), the novel had twelve-year-old children shouting "Heil, Hitler" and burning books and marching in Hitler Youth parades. In today's politically correct climate, I couldn't see any of that translating to the screen; and, quite frankly, it just might have been too inflamatory for a world that still hasn't worked through our issues of otherness and hatred and oppression.

But I couldn't help but wonder if the reviewers had read the book. I suppose that should be beside the point because the film should be able to stand on it's own--and, according to many reviewers, it didn't. My husband hadn't read the book, but when I filled in some blanks for him, the movie worked. It was certainly beautiful--all in shades of brown and gray and taupe with a sky almost always pale, rarely blue. Geoffrey Rush was a perfect Papa and Sophie Nelisse played up the contrast between Liesel's angelic side with her feisty approach to life's disappointments. Rosa Huberman was perhaps a bit too soft--the reader waited nearly half the book for Mama to become sympathetic.

I was not disappointed in the movie, but it couldn't even begin to touch the poignancy of the book. In Markus Zuzak's Book Thief, Death was most definitely not a tooth fairy, but a character in his own right, one who dawdled and bantered, laughed and cried. And Zuzak didn't give us Nazi Lite. He showed us life under the Third Reich through the eyes of a German citizen--sometimes burdensome, often constricting, but overall pretty routine after a while. And isn't that, really, the horror of Nazi Germany? Or any evil empire, for that matter? It becomes unexceptional. And when we accept evil as commonplace, we've begun to lose our humanity.

So read the book. Then enjoy the movie.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Liebe uber alle

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

The Book Thief  has been on my Amazon Wishlist for ages; published several years ago and a New York Times bestseller for now a second go-around, it seemed like good summer reading. Okay, so a novel about Nazi Germany might not be everyone's idea of a beach book, but what can I say? And from the first page, I was (dare I say?) enchanted by the narrator: Death. A kinder and gentler death, to be sure, but Death all the same. It was a poignant and powerful device.

Liesel Meminger is on her way to a new life with a foster family. The year is 1938; her father, a communist, has disappeared with the advent of Nazi rule, and her mother fears she'll be next. So Liesel and her little brother are off to Molching, a small village just outside of Munich. Hans and Rosa Huberman were anxiously expecting them and the small stipend that would accompany the children, stretching the family dollar a little further. But  little Werner dies along the way, leaving just his big sister to meet her foster family--and refusing, once she arrives, to budge from the placement agency's car.

We know from the first that Herr Huberman, Papa, is one special man. He coaxes Liesel from the car, shows her how to roll a cigarette for him. He plays the accordion and brings life into their cramped home. He helps Liesel navigate around the treacherous Frau Huberman, whose swearing and yelling and name-calling are legendary. But perhaps most important of all, Papa teaches Liesel how to read--he paints letters and words on the walls in the cellar and pours over the book Liesel found at her brother's gravesite: The Grave Digger's Handbook. (Other than that one teensy spoiler, I'll let you discover who the book thief is and how the books are stolen.)

Liesel navigates school and afternoon soccer matches in the street and wins the heart of Rudy Steiner, friend and confidant extraordinaire. She helps Mama deliver the laundry, attends her Hitler Youth troop--and marches in parades and sings Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles and shouts "Heil, Hitler." I think this might be the first novel I've ever read set in Germany in World War II where the main character is an active participant in Nazi life and it was a bit of a shock. But very little in this world is black and white, and Liesel soon finds out that life in Nazi Germany is many shades of gray.

Zusak scatters the pages of his novel with unexpected lists, labels, and asides. Here's the list that begins Part One: "himmel street--the art of saumensching--an ironfisted woman--a kiss attempt--jesse owens--sandpaper--the smell of friendship--a heavyweight champion--and the mother of all watschens". There are also two handwritten and illustrated books, one written by Liesel and one by a Jewish friend of hers. Which probably should have alerted me to the fact that The Book Thief  is marketed as a Young Adult novel. But because it's been several years since the book was first published, I either forgot or totally missed the initial hype (Read: I had no idea what this book was really about) and was fairly surprised at the target audience.

Young adult fiction or no, The Book Thief  is poignant and thought-provoking and beautifully crafted.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Civil War Herstory

Neverhome (NetGalley ARC)
Laird Hunt
release date: Sept. 2014

Ash Thompson sets off down the road to fight Mr. Lincoln's War. The family farm in Indiana was an idyllic place--a barn with a hayloft, a grove of trees, horse corral, "good chairs". A blissful place for a young couple to start their lives together. But one of them had to defend the Republic: Ash was strong; her husband Bartholomew was not. That's right--her husband. Because Ash was really Constance, and she was fighting her past as fiercely as she would fight the rebels.

So with bound chest and  hat pulled low, she sets off and soon joins a band of other men and boys looking to enlist. Ash arm wrestles, drinks whiskey with them, sleeps under the stars with them and finally reaches a
Union camp by a river where she is rewarded with a muzzle loading Springfield ("and  they said you could use it to kill a man a quarter mile away.") and a shovel to dig latrines.

Ash sets himself apart as a quick shot and a hard worker--there's no task he doesn't undertake with single-mindedness. He becomes legend when he breaks rank to scale a tree to cover a woman who, overcome with fervor at seeing the blue boys marching past, immodestly rips open her bodice.  Later that night, a fiddler starts in with a new tune around the campfire, "Gallant Ash went up the tree and helped a sweet old girl along ..."

I was slow to warm up to Ash and his story; it moved slowly. Until author Laird Hunt whispers of Ash's past and I was drawn in to wonder at the mystery of Ash's mother's death and whatever pain had come between Ash and Bartholomew.

Hunt tells Ash's story lyrically--even the horrors she experiences take on a kind of haunting beauty. Her friendship of sorts with her unit's commander is a thread that weaves through her story to the last and the respect they showed each other was genuine. When Ash is taken prisoner the novel was a bit reminiscent of Paulette Jiles' Enemy Women and I don't as a rule like novels with similar plot lines. But the novel's last few pages bring Ash and Constance together as they fight off each of their demons, only to lose and win the very same fight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A great journey

Amity and Sorry
by Peggy Riley

"Two sisters sit, side by side, in the backseat of an old car. Amity and Sorrow. Their hands are hot and
close together. A strip of white fabric loops between them, tying them together, wrist to wrist." And with those first lines, I'm hooked. The girls' mother, Amaranth, is running away from her polygamist husband, the Father. As in, "God, the Father." (Can you say "megalomaniac"?) Amaranth is wife #1 of fifty. That's right--fifty women with their infants and children, living off the grid on a secluded compound.

My biggest surprise, though, came when it was soon clear that the sisters weren't six and eight, which was the age I filled in for them. These sisters with the evocative Quaker-like names were twelve and sixteen--and that gave the novel a whole different spin.

Amaranth barely stops along her escape route. Not, at least, until she wrecks the car near the down-on-their-luck Bradley farm in Oklahoma. Forced to stay put for however long, Amaranth is at first an automaton, the rules from her previous life still ringing in her ears: fields are forbidden! enter no man's house! We watch as Amaranth slowly discards those rules, if only to survive. Twelve-year-old Amity, though skittish of life on the outside, has an easier time throwing off the strictures of her old life. But Sorrow's scars run deeper than anyone suspects.

Author Peggy Riley's portrayal of the shattered minds of these women is penetrating. Amaranth, quite rightly, exhibits some of the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. The girls are totally uneducated and unschooled, unable to read or write, ignorant of television and libraries and computers; Amity doesn't even know from whence they came--she has never seen a map, doesn't know the meaning of "Utah" or "Oklahoma". Their total naivete is jaw-dropping.

Aside from the preacher Father (Riley offers him neither excuse, nor absolution), the men in the novel are treated with sympathy. Bradley also knows loss and heartache. Dust, the half-breed Bradley adopted, lives with the isolation of bigotry. Old man Bradley is trapped by age and infirmity in his bedroom.

But then every character is trapped in Amity and Sorrow, some literally for a time, but then metaphorically. And I'm reminded of the title of a collection of Doris Lessing's essays, The Prisons We Choose To Live Inside. The question then becomes, who will escape?

All great journeys are made in faith. The pilgrim over dark seas, the immigrant to new lands, the pioneer to a salt-baked lake. Faith calls the native to the spirit walk, the vision quest, but Amananth can only hope, in retrospect, that hers is a great journey.