Daily Archives: August 12, 2017

CBR9 Review #106

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

The Chancellor has chosen Louise Erdrich’s LaRose for his September book club pick, and I was really excited. I read it for CBR8 last year, and I gave it a solid 4.5 stars. I was still on a readers’ high from The Round-House, which colored my judgment of LaRose. The beauty of a re-read is that you can really dig into major themes and ideas, because you know how the book already ends.

Since I reviewed this book last year, I won’t reiterate the plot for you here. I will, however, link to ElCicco’s most excellent and comprehensive review, which is much better than my original one. She points out the connections to community, spirituality, and storytelling, which are some of the strongest threads in the novel.

This time around, I really resonated with the spirituality and spiritual themes present in the book. While the mythology is not inherently Christian in its application, it does demonstrate the importance of a spiritual practice to maintaining a healthy balance. LaRose the child is well aware of the traditions that gird his community together, and he practices them, including an homage to those who have died. It’s touching to see a child that young participating in rites and stories that could otherwise be buried by the need to Westernize or acclimatize.

And while we’re on LaRose, he really came alive as a Christ-figure for me. I won’t spoil anything major for you here, but just the idea that he is the sacrifice made by Landreaux and Emmaline as atonement for their killing of Dusty, and that he rescues Peter and Nola from their consuming grief, has a redemptive and salvific quality to it. Even the fact that he brings two families together by his very existence signifies his importance to the text. I really liked the retelling of the LaRose stories, as they cement the heritage of the family, LaRose’s ancestry, and the tensions still at play between white people and the Ojibwe.

I changed my rating from 4.5 to a five-star rating. The denouement really hit me between the eyes, and I ended that part in tears.

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CBR9 Review #105

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Right now, I’m on a “read books for book club” streak, so my personal reading project is on hold for a few weeks. My library GenLit book club voted on its second-half-of-the-year selections a few months back, and Sam Quinones’ Dreamland was one of the winners. I don’t know too much about the opiate crisis in intimate detail, so I thought I would be informed. I had no idea how illuminating this book turned out to be.

Quinones is a journalist, and you can tell that he lays all the pieces out in painstaking detail. He chronicles a small town in an insignificant district in Mexico, where black-tar heroin is manufactured and where young boys beg to sell it in America in order to make their capitalist dreams come true. Then, you have the history of painkilling in the United States—doctors are encouraged to help patients avoid pain, and so you have OxyContin, which changes the script on other painkillers, as its timed release can cause a sharper high and trough into a deeper and more painful withdrawal. Quinones connects these two seemingly unconnected stories and points us to the real drug wars in the United States. It’s not poor black people on crack (thanks, 1980s Republicans for that!), but rather, middle-class and affluent white people who find themselves addicted to painkillers and must transition to heroin for the sake of costs.

This was a shocking and illuminating book. For one, Quinones highlights the class wars at play. For another, he shows how our culture’s relationship to medicine has truly become sick: we go to the doctor expecting pills, and we complain when they don’t prescribe them, so they often overprescribe in order to keep their jobs. And the cycle continues.

It’s a fast read, although it could have used a solid round of edits for continuity. Quinones mentions the phrase about delivering heroin like pizza so.many.times that my patience just ran out. Dude, WE GET IT. Mexican boys get a phone call and deliver heroin to an addict’s door. You don’t need to keep up with the pizza metaphors (and that also made me hungry for pizza, so maybe that’s a distracting metaphor).

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CBR9 Review #104

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Back in high school, I hadn’t discovered the word “feminist” yet, but I had discovered the word “suffragette.” For my American history research paper in 11th grade/Junior year, I wrote about suffragettes and I wore a pantsuit for my presentation (I had no idea that Pantsuit Nation would be a part of my life sixteen years later, nor that I would still not live to see a female president of the United States). That Spring, for my English III research project, I decided to write about Sylvia Plath. I remembered reading about her for my 8th grade research paper on poetry and her shocking suicide. So I spent that semester poring over Plath’s poetry in various volumes, as well as her life, her marriage, and the many family influences that guided her poetry (I didn’t read The Bell Jar until college, but oh, what an influential book it ended up being). I collected Ariel, one of her poetry books, many years ago and finally read it cover-to-cover this year.

Ariel doesn’t necessarily have a cohesive theme running through it, unless you consider the story of Ariel the sprite from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to be a sort of spiritual guide through this collection. You do read a lot about flying, about being weighed down by various struggles, and about the unbreakable influences of family. Some of Plath’s most famous poems, including “Daddy,” are in here. Plath struggled with her father’s death and his German heritage—both of which are tackled here. The last line is just breathtaking in its ferocity and heartbreak: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” And seriously, may Ivanka Trump be saying the same thing at ANY MOMENT NOW.

If you like poetry, you should absolutely read this collection. If you’re not sure about poetry, I don’t know if this is a good or bad place to start. Plath is an unconventional writer, and her style can be somewhat erratic if you don’t know what to look for. That said, I found this to be a worthy compilation, and I definitely need to read more of them. And do a Bell Jar re-read.

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CBR9 Review #103

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

I’ve not read all the Hogarth Shakespeare project books yet, but I do like literary adaptations of classic works. The Austen Project books have not all been amazing, but most of the interpretations have been original and engaging, and they’ve shown me how a classic work rooted in its time finds its legs in a different century. Tracy Chevalier, whose historical fiction is among the few that I will read as a matter of necessity (with the exception of At the Edge of the Orchard), takes a turn with Shakespeare. And her play is Othello.

If you’ve read the play Othello, you’ll know about the gender and racial tensions that play into the conflict of the story. Chevalier transposes them to 1970s Washington, D.C., where an ambassador’s son, Osei, finds himself at a new school at the end of 5th grade. Used to being an outcast, he determines to tough it out until he is introduced to Dee, the pretty and popular golden girl of the grade. She befriends him eagerly and innocently, and this sets the stage for Ian to completely overturn the school before the day is through.

Chevalier packs a tight and wrenching story into a day. The tension is constant throughout the book and when the conflict finally explodes, you’re still not ready for what transpires. I found this to be a masterful retelling of the original play, while giving it an infusion of contemporary identity politics that we can resonate with to this day. Further, because it is transposed to children, the conflict and moral dilemmas add an extra urgency and heartbreak. This was a fast read, but also a very stressful one.

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CBR9 Review #102

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

I read The Joy Luck Club in college for a women’s literature course, and while it wasn’t my favorite book, it was certainly interesting. I do think Amy Tan gets pigeonholed quite a bit as a “Chinese” American writer, and while she writes about a heritage from China, it’s not exactly fair to think of the experiences she writes about as exclusive to Chinese-Americans, or even more broadly, Asian-Americans. I won The Opposite of Fate, a nonfiction collection, at my undergrad’s English Department annual Book Exchange one year, and I’m finally getting around to reading it.

Tan writes a lot of letters, op-eds, and essays about her life, her writing life, and her connections to fate. The essays vary in interest, topic, and scope, but they all deal on some level with the patterns that play out in the choices she makes and the events that unfold. There’s a terrific essay on playing in a band with other writers, and there’s another essay about why she doesn’t care to be described as an Asian American writer, but an American writer. There’s a letter about a flash flood she and her husband survived in their cabin retreat, and there are a lot of essays about growing up American in a Chinese family.

Nonfiction is not always my bag, but this was a decent and engaging collection of essays. I should pick up more of Tan’s work, as she tells an intriguing story. If you liked The Joy Luck Club, you’ll probably find her writing about it to be quite revealing and give you some insights into the novel and the subsequent film adaptation (which I still have not seen yet).

 

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CBR9 Review #101

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

I never read The Crucible in high school, but The Chancellor’s taught it to his American Literature class before, and he’s talked to me about Arthur Miller and the ideas he wrote about in his plays. Plus, I’d seen the AWFUL adaptation that was quite thick on nakedness and a bit thin on thematic development, so I was curious to see how the play would stack up. And, let’s not forget that we’re living in a weird hybrid McCarthyistic/Nixonian era that I thought only existed in history books but our presidential administration decided to revive in an attempt to kill us all from the stress (it’s been a LONG seven months, y’all).

So. We have a Puritan community that does not believe in jumping on the sin wagon. We have a slave, er, servant, girl from the Caribbean named Tituba who has maybe been forced to convert to Christianity. We have Abigail, a teenaged girl who is influential in the power of suggestion. And we have a community rocked by fear and paranoia when there’s a suggestion that a girl has been possessed by the devil, because there are witches in the midst. And then there’s John Proctor, who’s an agnostic-type man who doesn’t go in for religion and mayyyybe fell into Abigail’s treacherous teenaged vagina while she was working for his wife (because THAT trope never gets old when we read about it from white men, amirite?).

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It’s a play ostensibly about the Salem Witch Trials, but it’s REALLY about McCarthyism and the way paranoia and witch-hunting ruin community.

I liked the overall idea and themes the play was reinforcing, but John Proctor is the dullest of dull “heroes” (and DO NOT get me started on Daniel Day-Lewis in the adaptation. We all have an irrational hatred for an actor; he’s mine). And the format of the play is just odd. There are pages and pages of exposition, not even from an off-stage narrator, which was terribly jarring. I like to see a play performed even more than I like to read it, but I couldn’t help think, “How do you even perform this?” and it took me out of the reading experience.

I’ve read really amazing plays, and this is not it. If you want an excellent critique of Puritanism, read Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially “The Minister’s Black Veil” or “Young Goodman Brown.” If you want a great story about the Salem Witch Trials, read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. And if you want a great critique on McCarthyism, I highly recommend the film Good Night, and Good Luck.

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CBR9 Review #100

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

We just got done with a rousing book club discussion of C’s pick, Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, which acts as a sequel to her highly-acclaimed Daring Greatly. I’m not one for self-help books, but Brown touches on something that most of us don’t think explicitly about and runs us through mental processes that affect our daily lives and self-worth.

This book works best if you’ve already read Daring Greatly, because Brown talks us through the Roosevelt quote about lying facedown in the arena and uses it as her jumping point for this book—rising strong amid failures. She slows down the “lying facedown” part wayyyy down so that you actually get to experience the meta-cognitive aspects of the “rising strong” process. She discusses narratives as a way for you to analyze the stories you tell yourself and then explain why these stories can be deceptive or lead you away from the actual truth. I found that helpful as a way to understand my feelings but also understand how they might be getting in the way of logic.

Another concept I found helpful was the idea of “rumbling.” This is part of the “facedown” process where you are struggling with a story and don’t quite know how to get on to the next part. As I’ve alluded before, I’ve been rumbling with career stuff for the past few years. I’m an academic struggling with three adjunct jobs right now and no clear end in sight. I feel lousy about my career prospects, but I *love* teaching with every fiber of my being. So, this summer, I’ve done some rumbling, and it’s been really helpful as a metaphor (I’m still not sure how my story ends, but I’m working on the in-between parts at the moment).

If self-help is not your thing, I get it, because I’m right there with you. Brown takes away some of the ick factor that goes into overly saccharine books and smartly helps you focus on productive emotions and “rising strong” from inevitable failures that can only come when you dare to try and try and try. I do really recommend this book.

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