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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

2015 #9: Writing Without Teachers (P. Elbow)

This is a classic and it is easy to see why. I have been familiar with Elbow's ideas (e.g. "the doubting and believing game") for quite sometime, but had received much of the information secondhand. For their time, the ideas in the book were revolutionary. In today's culture of "flipped classrooms" and the like, I hope that he finds more sympathetic reception for his ideas. A "teacherless writing group" isn't necessarily realistic within most college curricula, but I think every teacher who grades papers needs to read this book. The book could also be called "Reading for Teachers"--although admittedly some of this information is subtextual. It is rather dreadfully unfair when you consider what happens in most undergraduate classrooms with "term papers"---and indeed most written assignments. Students have very little chance to muck out their ideas and the motivation for doing so is almost always external (going for the grade). Elbow advocates personal freewriting as an inroad for students to find an investment in their own writing. But he also--and this was my takeaway--admonishes the overly critical, doubting attitude that has swallowed up academia and intellectual culture. It is possible to uphold critical thinking as a value, but that can include the "practice [of] getting the mind to see or think what is new, different, alien" (173). By *believing* in other perceptions and experiences, we widen the scope of our ability to "make a gestalt" as Elbow says. While I'm still inclined to grade papers because I think assessment is too systemic to chuck it out the window at this point, I think I can integrate a lot of the ideas of the teacherless writing group into my classes--more so than I already have--and even more importantly, into my reading and grading.

The slightly ironic aspect of the book is Elbow's defiant use of repetition and metaphor to address his detractors. He writes on the defensive at times, and the new edition makes clear why this is, but it can feel a bit tiresome when one is playing the believing game with his book. At the same time, it is "meta" in some respects, because Elbow is clearly playing the doubting and believing game in his own prose. So his "invisible" detractors are sometimes advocates and sometimes naysayers. The most fascinating part are the windows into his own process--particularly the second appendix of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition where he shares some of his messy freewriting that eventually found voice in the book.

Friday, June 26, 2015

2015 #8: Teaching With Writing (Toby Fulwiler)

Teaching with WritingTeaching with Writing by Toby Fulwiler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While somewhat dated (the book was published in 1987), Fulwiler's book is full of good lessons and exercises for teachers who wish to engage more with writing in their classes. It is essentially a teacher workshop in book form, and each chapter has pre- and post- journal writing exercises.

The handouts that are included at the end of each chapter are particularly helpful. I will be using many of them in my classes next semester. The handout on "Following Directions" at the end of Chapter 8 is fantastic as it serves as a reminder that prompts are as important as the assignments we receive. The handout breaks down the nuanced differences between words like "analyze", "compare", "contrast", "justify", etc. for our students and in turn makes us more conscious about what we ask them to do.

Admittedly, Fulwiler's scenarios are a bit rosy at times, and he doesn't address working with ELL students in any kind of meaningful way. Many of these activities fail when there is not a uniform level of English ability in the classroom. Chapter 7 on "Research Writing" spends a lot of time on conducting interviews as a major source of research. That's likely to be more helpful in some subjects more than others, and the chapter really doesn't offer ideas for motivating students to do other kinds of research, although it recognizes that as a major problem. Fulwiler also encourages collaborative editing and proofreading among students outside of class, saying "Such cooperative work does not amount to cheating; virtually all serious writers rely on outside editorial help." There's the problem, however--it isn't really "outside" when you're talking about students in the same class. It can open the door for plagiarism, even if it is not intentional.

Overall, however, Fulwiler's book is still a very relevant resource for any teacher in any subject who wants to integrate writing as a tool for learning, not just evaluating.

Monday, June 15, 2015

2015 #7: They Say, I Say by G. Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic WritingThey Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I share the concerns of those who dislike the idea of templates, but I can see their usefulness, at least in part. There are a lot of valuable ideas in this little book, however, and I think it can be a great resource for teachers who can then tailor the exercises to achieve similar goals. For example, my department feels strongly that students should NOT use first person for scholarly research writing (in disagreement with the authors of the book). That doesn't mean that the book is useless. I've gone through and highlighted the examples that are in third person. I found certain sections a bit questionable (e.g. "Mix Academic and Colloquial Styles") but the authors write very much in the spirit of suggestion, rather than dogma. The book provides some very admirable and engaging ideas as to how one might tackle the mega-question: Why does writing matter? Getting students to enter a dialogue with unseen respondents is difficult, but this book presents several exercises (many of which are not dependent upon templates) that can help students engage with writing as part of a much larger conversation, rather than a single assignment for a teacher or professor.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2015 #6: Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

TITLE: Lying Awake
AUTHOR: Mark Salzman
Year: Vintage ppbk ed, 2001
Pages: 181
RATING: 4/5 stars

This is a beautifully written book that is ultimately sensitive and perceptive about the cloistered life. Yet, as much as it *is* about a nun, it is not. Salzman lets the universal truths of our humanity blossom throughout the book, without being preachy or cliché. Sister John of the Cross's waking dreams are the key not just for the protagonist, but for the reader as well. The end did seem to be abrupt, in terms of narrative flow, but it is one instance where the lack of conclusion seemed apt. A good read for anyone who is devoted to a passion and has crafted a life around that passion.

Monday, June 1, 2015

2015 #5: Orfeo by Richard Powers

OrfeoOrfeo by Richard Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a hard time getting into this novel because it made me feel conspicuous as a musicologist. The first quarter of the book seemed to be trying too hard to establish its musical street cred, but I understand now…that may have been the point. The protagonist spends his life trying to establish his own credibility, most importantly with himself. There are many references to some of the biggest composers and pieces of the twentieth century, and Powers is very gifted in the artistic and nuanced way he writes about music. By the midpoint of the novel, Peter Els--the main character--seems to adopt a more Cagean-sense of music and Powers, too, seems more comfortable in his prose. He's a tough character, Els--you never really know how to connect to him (and he never really knows how to connect to anyone). He's an Orpheus running from the Underworld, but not to rescue Euridice. The undertow of music pulls at him constantly, and his life cycles through submitting to that force and fighting against it. Powers is masterful in his ability to recount narrative through multiple flashbacks which, at the end, help us understand that we are all fugitives of one sort or another.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 #4: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

The real take-away here is in Armstrong's final chapter: "The mythos of compassion tells us what to do. Instead of becoming depressed by our repeated failures, we should remember that constant practice does indeed make perfect and that if we persevere, we too can become a force for good in the world" (192). Armstrong's big picture targets compassion as a force that has the potential to bring about peace on a global scale. Whether or not this is true is hardly the point--a case for everyday empathy is relevant no matter what the context. Her most valuable insight is that it is difficult and takes practice. She includes practical exercises for empathy and compassion, and avoids the patronizing and moralistic tone that so many books of this nature seem to adopt. She extends the work of Joseph Campbell from the theoretical to the practical.

Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 #3: Astray by Emma Donoghue

I cannot honestly remember when I have so enjoyed a collection of short stories. Donoghue has so many voices inside her--each one unique, yet all united by sojourns of the soul and spirit. From the pages of history, Donoghue develops characters who are flawed in ways that we can recognize when we look in the mirror. I found this collection of short stories to be an excellent companion to A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit (review here). I'd recommend this strongly to travelers, whether their journeys are literal or figurative.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 #1 and #2: The Circle (Eggers) and Salt (Kurlansky)

50 books has proven to be too much, so I'm setting a smaller goal this year: 25. So far, on January 1st, I have two checked off. I'm being generous and counting books that I started in 2014, obviously.

TITLE: The Circle
AUTHOR: Dave Eggers
PUBLISHER: Vintage Books, 2013 (paperback)
PAGES: 497

Unfortunately, the "protagonist" (if one can even call her that) in Eggers' novel is so unbelievably ridiculous that it detracts from the value of the dystopic message. In contrast to a book like Fahrenheit 451, The Circle lacks subtlety. No one with enough brain cells to pick this book up in the first place needs to be hit over the head with the message. Mae is such an unlikeable character that I didn't want to spend time reading about her. And I think that was Eggers' true misstep here. He could have achieved the same transformation, but she could have had more questions and could have been more dimensional. The last 25 pages of the book were rather chilling and redeemed some of the more dry narrative. I like Eggers as a writer very much, and there are descriptive passages, particularly of San Francisco Bay, which are exquisite to read. Part of me believes that the contrast between the nature scenes and the scenes inside the Circle is part of Eggers' plan, but there's not enough balance. And it is when The Circle robs Mae of her time on the bay that I found the character the most unbelievable.

I will say that the book is unsettling enough that it made me question how much time I spend online and how much I share. While Eggers' vision is one that I think is ultimately hyperbolic and probably not very likely, it does ask us to consider how much we are willing to concede for transparency, and whether "transparency" is the cost of social interaction in the digital age. In short, the book probably could lose at least 100 pages, and still retain its message. Ultimately, the "story of one woman's ambition and idealism" (back cover) never materialized--instead it begins (and ends) as a story of one woman's naïveté and low self-esteem.

TITLE: Salt: A World History
AUTHOR: Mark Kurlansky
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books, 2002 (paperback)
PAGES: 497

"A Turks and Caicos designer drew a crest [for the flag] that included Salt Cay saltworks with salt rakers in the foreground and piles of salt.  Back in England, it was the era of Arctic exporation, and, not knowing where the Turks and Caicos was, the English designer assumed the little white domes were igloos. And so he drew doors on each one. And this scene of salt piles with doors  remained the official crest of the colony for almost 100 years, until replaced in 1968 by a crest featuring a flamingo." (Salt, 432)

This book is peppered (hah) with little anecdotal gems like this. The history of salt is indeed the history of so much more, as Kurlansky aptly demonstrates. Chapter 21, which details the significance of salt in Gandhi's resistance in India, was particularly interesting, as were the early chapters of the book. The book's biggest weakness is its organization, or lack thereof. In fairness, Kurlansky really didn't have that many options, given the topic. A straightforward chronological approach would not work, but the book does not negotiate the back and forth of the narrative as well as it might. I found myself losing track of the different methods, although I will admit this may be due in part to the large gaps of time in between my readings, which is obviously no fault of the book. It is certainly eye-opening in that we take for granted those little grains and what they mean for economics, for social justice, for history. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in world history and/or food.