American Reckoning

The blurb on the back of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity asks "how did the Vietnam war change the way we think of ourselves as a people and a nation?" And Christian G. Appy does an apt job addressing this question. I spent this past winter and summer working for an oral history project called the Dartmouth Vietnam Project, dedicated to recording the stories of members of the Dartmouth community who served in Vietnam or who were active in the anti-war movement on campus. I was fortunate to interview very different people - from a marine to a military chaplain to a conscientious objector to a draft dodger - and it sparked my interest in learning more about the Vietnam War Era. So, on the recommendation of my Dad, I read this. And I loved it. That isn't to say you have to spend half your year studying Vietnam to love Appy's American Reckoning (but I guess it didn't hurt). There were two main things I enjoyed about the book: one, the way it didn't just focus on the years America was involved in Vietnam, but the before and the after. Appy split the narrative into three parts -- (1) Why Are We in Vietnam, (2) America at War, and (3) What Have We Become? He went all the way up through the Obama administration. The scope of how he traces the roots of American exceptionalism is marvelous. Two, I particularly enjoyed his interweaving of pop culture. Appy starts off with a discussion of a book by Tom Dooley, Deliver Us from Evil, and touches on everything from the Ed Sullivan Show to Bruce Springsteen to Rambo. Analyzing American national identity is a hard task; but Appy is undeniably up for the challenge. The only drawback of the book for me was that it took me until chapter 3 to really want to read the whole thing; maybe because the beginning didn't feel like new material. But I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book, from the very end:
The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America's persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we were not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own. 
Rating: ★★★★


Trigger Warning

Neil Gaiman can be depended upon for a journey into the realms of myth and magic and ghost stories. So, I thought I would love his new short story collection. I adored Stardust and Neverwhere; plus, I had read one of his short stories in a different collection ("The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...") But, the stories as a whole in Trigger Warning just didn't quite do it for me. Maybe because I read the collection too quickly, and maybe it would be better to savor each story and pick apart the references lovingly embedded in each one. There were definitely some gems -- "Orange" stood out to me, as a series of responses to an investigator's questions, and "A Calendar of Tales," very short stories focused on each month of the year. Plus the theme of the collection - the idea of a "trigger warning" - was lovely. As Gaiman writes in the introduction (which was written in a very frank, I-am-talking-to-my-readers type of way, which I adore):
There are things that upset us. That's not quite what we're talking about here, though. I'm thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming... And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead. 
The collection felt disjointed when read all at once. Yes, there were touches of magic in each story. But I think had a few been left out, the whole would have been stronger. And because many of the short stories had been published elsewhere for different purposes, they didn't feel properly curated. It's like if you had gone to a museum and it was just a jumble of different pieces by different artists with no unifying theme. That isn't to say each of the pieces themselves weren't interesting on their own. Just they could maybe have been left on their own. What I can recommend of Neil Gaiman's work, if you're looking for a good magical read: with a love story: Stardust, for the YA set: The Graveyard Book, or a fantastic reworking of mythology: American Gods (seriously, go read American Gods if you haven't yet). Or check Trigger Warning out of your library and just read a a few of the stories. Maybe the lesson I learned is that I should read short story collections slower, or not feel the need to read every single story. Rating: ★★★


The Opposite of Loneliness

Marina Keegan died in a car crash five days after she graduated from Yale University in 2012. "The Opposite of Loneliness," an essay she wrote for commencement, went viral after her death. That essay becomes the titular piece of this posthumous publication, a series of short stories and personal essays. I started reading feeling weird that the main reason this collection got published was because of her death; as one reviewer noted, "if the reason people are reading her book is because they feel sorry or guilty somehow, doesn’t that undermine Keegan’s authentic dream to be admired for her writing, not for her biography?" As I started reading, I forgot that this had been published in remembrance of Keegan. It's just so enthralling and well-written. A Yale Professor who was close with Keegan edited the collection, and told the New York Times that she would be "beyond thrilled” at having published work, "but would add: 'Please pay attention to my ideas. Don’t read this book just because I’m dead.'  Even if the more cynical among us argue that her work only got published because of her death, I would argue that her talent -- which shines through in an authentic voice -- cannot be ignored. I think most writers strive for authenticity; for Keegan, it comes naturally. When I didn't forget the circumstances of the publication was when there were uncomfortable tinges of sadness and real-life foreshadowing - when she writes about her ideal future, or how she would like to die, or from the perspective of a girl whose hookup-maybe-boyfriend has just died. Another reviewer writes, "The experience of reading this book is extremely and uncomfortably sad." Nonetheless, I think it was a valuable read because irregardless of the context of the publication, her work is good. I loved her short stories; they were inventive, touching, and realistic. I'll leave you with the quote from her poem Nuclear Spring (happy first day of spring!) that started off the "nonfiction" section that I adored:
So what I'm trying to say is you should text me back.
Because there's a precedent. Because there's an urgency.
Because there's a bedtime.
Because when the world ends I might not have my phone charged and
If you don't respond soon,
I won't know if you'd wanna leave your shadow next to mine.
Rating: ★★★(★)


The Shepherd's Life

"No one who works in this landscape romanticizes wilderness," writes James Rebanks in his wonderfully enthralling The Shepherd's Life. I love that idea: that only those who work on the landscape can tell its true story. He begins The Shepherd's Life with the line "there is no beginning, and there is no end." He places his farming way of life in a larger history of five thousand years. I felt immediately transported to the Lake District. You may think of the Lake District and think of William Wordsworth or Beatrix Potter. Rebanks' Lake District is not Wordsworth's. He does not "wander as lonely as a cloud," he is firmly rooted in place. And his love of place, and of shepherding and farming and his family, comes through so strongly. The story starts slow, but builds into a captivating read. You fall into his world of sheep and seasonal rituals (his narrative is structured into four parts, split by season) and you don't want it to end (when it did end, I stayed up reading every interview I could find with him on the internet. This one is fantastic.). It made me want to go back to the Lake District and explore the land with a greater understanding of the culture. The Lake District (in northwest England) was my absolute favorite place I travelled to this past fall when I studied abroad in London and travelled England and read a ton of books (see my list of 2015 books, #s 21 - 52 are London). My favorite bookstore (Daunt Books in Marleybone) listed James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life as one of their top books of 2015 (calling it "literary magic from working life"). It was practically inevitable I read it. And I am so glad I did, for gems like this passage (from the "Spring" section):
I understand why people once worshipped the sun and had countless festivals to celebrate spring and the end of winter. It is this endurance in a place throughout everything that nature throws at it, year in, year out, that shapes our relationship with this place. We are weathered like the mountain ash trees that grow here. They bend away from the wind and are battered, torn, and twisted. But they survive here, through it all, and they belong here because of it. That weathering makes us what we are. 
He belongs to the Lake District, and the story of the way of life of the Lake District belongs to him. Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape, as the subtitle reads, extends beyond Rebanks' book. He runs a twitter that is filled with updates from his day and photos of his sheep and the land. For example, his sheepdog and a pack of his sheep (under the break):


The Bloody Chamber

You know how you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover? Whoops. The cover of the 75th anniversary edition of The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories by Angela Carter is the reason I read her wonderful collection of fairy tales (note that the collection is a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Carter's birth, not the story (which was published in 1979)). The blurb about the collection (once I got past the cover) (I'm serious its so nice go look at it) captured my attention, describing Carter as a "storytelling sorceress" and as someone who "spins subversively dark and sensual versions of familiar fairy tales and legends." There are ten tales in the collection, each touching on themes of female desire and sexuality, enrapture its readers. As one reviewer writes, "The heroines of these stories are struggling out of the straitjackets of history and ideology and biological essentialism." In the introduction to the collection, Kelly Link writes what makes the collection cohere is "Carter's ferment of ideas about gender and sexuality and story." My favorite story, besides the titular one (the first in the collection pulled me in because of the heroine's dramatic re-writing of her own story), was "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," a retelling of Beauty & the Beast. It ends, as the Disney tale does, with the Beast transforming into a man:
And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all the beasts.
In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," Beauty leaves the Beast's house, and returns on her own prerogative. And just look at that description!!!  "Such as the noses of retired boxers." In a later story ("The Lady in the House of Love," about a vampire), I think I re-read this passage about five times before moving on:
He has the special quality of virginity, most and least ambiguous of states: ignorance, yet at the same time, power in potentia, and furthermore, unknowingness, which is not the same as ignorance. He is more than he knows--and has about him, besides, the special glamour of that generation for whom history has already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France. This being, rooted in change and time, is about to collide with the timeless Gothic eternity of vampires, for whom all is as it has always been and will be, whose cards always fall in the same pattern.
The focus on male virginity instead of female virginity/purity, plus the off-hand mention of WWI that grounds the story in reality, and then the "timeless Gothic eternity of vampires" .... it all just works so well!!  There were other stories I wasn't as crazy about-- the sexual violence in some of the shorter ones (like "The Snow Child" or "The Erl King") felt gratuitous and uncomfortable at times. But maybe they were supposed to make me feel uncomfortable, I don't know. You should decide for yourself. Rating: ★★★★

Just Mercy

America must fix its criminal justice system!!!!! .... That was the big take-away, and a necessary one, from Bryan Stevenson's breathtaking Just Mercy. Part call to action, part history lesson, part memoir, Just Mercy weaves the three together around the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man on Alabama's death row. Stevenson founded Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization that "provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system." Just Mercy gives its readers insight into everything that the EJI works hard to achieve. In a profile of Stevenson, Desmond Tutu writes that Just Mercy "is as gripping as it is disturbing—as if America’s soul has been put on trial." As my mom said when she gave it to me to read, "this is a must read!!!" Now, my mom calls many things "must reads," but I agree with her on this one. I can't sum the book up in a brief review, but I can emphasize the necessity of reading it and educating yourself on the institutional racism, mass incarceration, the death penalty, children in adult prisons, and disenfranchisement of convicted felons. As the NYT writes, "Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court. And, as it happens, the book extols not his nobility but that of the cause, and reads like a call to action for all that remains to be done." Stevenson is hopeful that things will begin to change. Don't have time to read the book? Watch his Ted Talk, read (short) "The Prison Problem," or read (longer) "The Mass Incarceration Problem in America" Rating: ★★★★★


I, Iago

To be perfectly honest, I had not thought about the tragedy of Othello since I turned in my final paper my senior year of high school about Iago (the villain of the story). Shakespeare was largely a relic of high school English classes.... until today, when I picked up Nicole Galland's stunning novel, I, Iago. The story takes place from the point of view of Shakespeare's most dastardly villain, Iago. I don't know exactly what drew me to this story - I haven't read Shakespeare since turning in that paper, and I don't know what I quite expected. The pull quote on the cover from Geraldine Brooks called the novel an "astonishing work of imaginative empathy," so I knew the point was to feel sympathy for the villainous Iago. And Galland does just that; over the course of the story, she reveals a different nature of Iago than the villain of the play. She gives him a fleshed out backstory, beginning from his childhood as the fifth son of a Venetian merchant, through his military training and career guided by a desire to do what is "honest," and an overwhelming love for his wife, Emilia. The themes of jealousy run through his story, like through the original Othello (in Act 3 of the play, Iago warns Othello, "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on"). Galland's novel is split into two parts: "before" and "after." The "before" section is Iago's life until Shakespeare's narrative starts, and "after" is the narrative of Othello. The entire tale is wholly from the first person point of view of Iago, without the Shakespearean dialogue. I found the story highly readable, and it makes me want to re-read Othello itself (and god, does it make me want to re-write that paper I wrote on Iago in high school). I am a sucker for a good re-telling (I don't know how many times I've read Anita Diamant's The Red Tent) and I absolutely love seeing authors taking stories that are such an entrenched part of the literary canon and exploring new depths to the material. The only thing that didn't quite work for me was the  transformation of helplessly in love Iago to one who would murder the object of his love... it was not quite convincing enough (hence the 4 stars instead of five). But I really enjoyed the story nonetheless. Galland chooses a quote from Arthur Miller's The Crucible to start her story: "an hour before the devil fell, God thought him beautiful in heaven," thus setting her readers up for a tale of a wondrous fall. And wondrous it was... Rating: ★★★★


Jews and Words

Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, an Israeli historian, Fania Oz-Salzberger team up in this collection of four essays regarding the relationship between the Jewish people and the written word. Their source material is as old as Judaism itself, but they approach the way words are valued, understood and debated in ways that were new to me. The thesis of the book is that for Jews, as they write on the opening page, “ours is not a bloodline but a textline” (1). Jewish people find their unity and pride in identity in the written words of Jews generations before them; the Ozs demonstrate that Jewish heritage can be found within stories. The idea of a “bookish” culture propels them to unpack the consequences of what the emphasis on the written word and dissent means for Jewish people in the diaspora today. The father-daughter dynamic of the authorship shines through strongly, and the combination of story-telling and academia works particularly well. The essay on “Vocal Women” stood out to me, as a deft combination of humor and real textual analysis that navigated Jewish feminism, Israeli politics, and women in Judaism. One quote that I loved, and I believe sums up the nature of the essay collection, can be found in the “Vocal Women” chapter:
“Throughout the Diaspora—by which we mean diasporic space and diasporic time—being Jewish depended on spoken words, and increasingly on written texts. Women have no inferiority when it comes to words. Even the Talmud conceded that ‘ten measures of speech descended to the world, and the women took nine.’ If this is meant to be an insult, it is working the opposite way.” (96)
The combination of the Talmudic reference, the historical context and the aside to outspoken Jewish women today is an expertly crafted bit that is consistent throughout the book. In an interview with NPR, Amos Oz explains that the book is “meant to propose to Jews in Israel, in America and everywhere — and it means to propose to non-Jews — to relate to a wonderful line of texts, full of wisdom, full of humor, full of inventiveness, full of chutzpah.” Readers, in Oz’s mind, are therefore anyone who is interested in learning further about Jewish heritage through words. I would highly recommend it. Rating: ★★★★★