Saturday, January 9, 2016

2016 #2: Homer and Langley (E.L. Doctorow)

Homer & LangleyHomer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading up a bit on the Collyer brothers, I changed my assessment of this novel. I don't take issue with the liberties of timeline and birth order, but I don't understand why Doctorow did it. Sure, the journey through the 1950s-70s was interesting and the Collier brothers would no doubt have been an intriguing lens for such times, but why make Homer the pianist and the younger brother? Admittedly, I knew little about the Collyer brothers before reading the novel and I think that added to my enjoyment. What struck me is that it is a story about stories in some sense. For much of the world, there were mysteries behind those doors of that brownstone that were sensationalized, yet fantastically truthful. What Doctorow does, however, is digs through the labels of "disorders" and reveals a relationship between two people. Two secluded brothers in history are perfect fodder for fictionalization and maybe that is their legacy--to generate stories. There's a safety in fiction, especially now that they are gone. But Doctorow asks us--with this story--to look beyond all in our present that is eccentric and "unknown" to find the touchstones. Maybe I'm giving him more credit than I should, but that was my takeaway from the book.

Friday, January 8, 2016

2016 #1: Flight (Sherman Alexie)

FlightFlight by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three pages in, I was prepared not to like this book. It had all the indications of being a Catcher In The Rye-type novel, and I have no great love for that book. I stuck with it, however, and soon I realized that Alexie had a far different story to tell that was much larger than the angst of his teenage protagonist, Zits. He keeps it edgy without being obnoxious, and the questions that the book invokes are never fully answered but you realize at the end that it matters not. Here is an author that understands that violence is perhaps a universal potential that we conveniently put in racial and ethnic boxes when it suits us to think better of ourselves. Fantastic book!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 #14: Stones From the River

Stones from the RiverStones from the River by Ursula Hegi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novel because Hegi does such a wonderful job of weaving the narratives together without ever making it overwrought and preachy. It is not a story about a Zwerg (dwarf) woman in Germany prior and during World War II. It is a story about Trudi Montag, whose experiences and fears are a mirror to our own trials and tribulations--perhaps not in severity, but in the lessons that can be learned. Despite the sometimes difficult subject matter, Trudi is a redemptive protagonist (at least for the reader), and the book is a beautiful tribute to the challenges of humanity.

2015 #13: Going on Faith-Writing as a Spiritual Quest

Going on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual QuestGoing on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual Quest by William Zinsser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trust William Zinsser to bring together four novelists (David Bradley, Frederick Buechner, Mary Gordon, and Hugh Nissenson), a poet (Allen Ginsberg), and a religious historian (Jaroslav Pelikan) -- "men and women from various points of God's compass"-- for a lecture series that was originally published in 1988 as Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing (now out of print). Ten years later, he broadened the book by adding three more writers to the pool: Diane Ackerman, Patricia Hampl and Hillel Levine. For those who have read Zinsser's books on memoir writing and his wonderful chapter on interviewing in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, his influence is felt in each of these three essays, without compromising the voice of the author. Zinsser wanted to "preserve the oral integrity of the book as a collection of talks" so he recorded each of the three authors and then "edited the transcript[s] into narrative."

What is striking is how many of the authors are quick to challenge the idea of being "religious writers" or even "spiritual" writers. For some, they set out on a different path altogether, and the process became spirit. My favorite moments included Hillel Levine's description of meeting the history of Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who was responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives in the summer of 1940. Hillel found that "what was heroic about Sugihara was his ordinariness...the power of his moral leadership was so great that he was able to evoke goodness in other people" (81). Frederick Buechner opens with a story of a strand of blue thread, a tie clip, and the evocation of his own name that soon blossoms into an excellent essay on faith and fiction. He says, "In both faith and fiction the people you meet along the way, the things that happen to happen, the places--the airport bar, the room where you have a last supper with some friend--count for much more than ideas do. Fiction can hold opposites together in a story simultaneously...and so can faith, which by its very nature both sees and does not see" (51).

All of the lecture-essays are excellent, and I do recommend reading all of them in order. Together they form a narrative as a whole, as provide a thoughtful sustenance for those who write and read.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015 #12: A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid SunsA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Devastating" and "beautiful" often sound cliché when they are paired together, but in the case of A Thousand Splendid Suns, these words are more than apt. Part of the power of the book is to that there are many Mariams and Lailas all over the world for whom this story is not a fiction. Hosseini manages to passionately advocate for them without hyperbole or an excess of drama, spinning a tale that is tragic, but so human. The horrors in the book are at times almost unreadable, but Hosseini compels you to read further because you feel you owe it to the characters who persevere. Ultimately, you realize you owe it to the many people in the world for whom bombs are a daily reality, and the frightening relativism of terrorism inside a house vs. outside a house is perhaps the sharpest edge of the knife.

In a book with so little that is redemptive, I was startled by the ending. It is perfect--not happy, nor sad, but the perfect way to let us know that the story goes on well beyond the last page of any book.

2015 #11 On Writing Well

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing NonfictionOn Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My copy of this is dog-eared, and with good reason. If Zinsser's words came in pill form, I'd take it daily, because this text has changed the way I write--not just essays and articles, but EVERYTHING. Charged with humor and a no-nonsense attitude, On Writing Well is probably one of the most enjoyable reads in this genre, especially as Zinsser practices what he preaches. I've shared multiple chapters with friends and students, and I'd love to see this book become standard reading in any writing course. Writing, as Zinsser tells us, is hard. But hard doesn't mean impossible. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who writes ANYTHING for a living--emails, website copy, blogposts, grant proposals, magazine articles--anything!

And for those who found sexism in the original edition, I highly suggest reading the most recent edition. Sadly, there will be no further revisions from Zinsser who died in May of this year (2015), but I think his guidance is relevant as long as humans continue to communicate via the written word.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

2015 #10: Gardens of Gravel and Sand (L. Koren)

Gardens of Gravel and SandGardens of Gravel and Sand by Leonard Koren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In half an hour, looking through this book and reading Koren's text will have you rethinking what you think you know about rock gardens. It is a pragmatic look at gravel and sand as "possibly art," and while that may not seem very enticing, it is arguably a more valuable exploration of these gardens than all the new age, Zen, and run-of-the-mill garden books put together. Koren argues that many of the gardens "were not even designed or constructed by Zen practitioners at all by by gardeners/garden designers who were of the lowest social class; there is nothing Zen-like or "spiritual" about them" (32). While his arguments may not impact the integration of said gardens into modern Zen practice, it is refreshing to find new ways of seeing these spaces that are not cliché and rhetorical.