Saturday, December 23, 2006

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

December 23, 2006

Somehow I missed writing a review of this book by Jon Krakauer back in the summer. Of course this review isn't fresh since it's been several months since I read the book, but it was rivetting. The primary story that Krakauer tells involves the grisly murders of a young mother and her child by two brothers who believe that God ordered them to commit the murders. The deeper story is of the shadowy world of Mormon fundamentalism, which is all too often mistaken for the LDS church. While the LDS Church declared polygamy illegal in 1890, fundamentalists considered this apostasy and broke off to live a more "righteous" life. Fundamentalist sects headed to secluded areas in Colorado, Mexico, the northwest, and Canada to form communities of polygamists that still exist today (and make national news once or twice a year). This is a bone-chilling book for the crime aspect, and an excellent portrayal of the strange world of the polygamist communities.

Book Review: Crunchy Cons

December 23, 2006

The subtitle of this book by Rod Dreher this book by Rod Dreher just about sums it up: "How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)." What homeschooling parent wouldn’t want to read this book? I’ll admit that certain words in this subtitle give me the heebie-jeebies (“right-wing” is one of them), but others are just too attractive for me to pass this one up (having “hip,” “homeschooling,” and “countercultural” in the same sentence makes me giddy). “Crunchy” itself is something I’ve been accused of being by more than a few people, although I must admit I’ve often bristled at the term because I grew up amidst a swarm of die-hard Crunchy Granola-Heads (these yuppie-turned-crunchies need to be carefully distinguished from true hippies a la my oldest brother and his dysfunctional and now defunct commune groupies).

But back to the book. It is an “a ha” book throughout. In nearly every chapter I had those moments of thinking (or saying outloud and then reading passages to Randy), “Yes! Exactly!” and “So THIS is what I am—and there are tons of people like me!” There were a few moments of saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” especially in the chapter devoted to religion, but I do have more of an understanding of some of my friends’ choices now. Boy, there’s just so much good stuff in this book, but let me start by providing the Crunchy Con Manifesto:
1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.
2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.
3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.
4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.
5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.
6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.
7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.
8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.
9. We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

One of the things I love best about this book is that Dreher emphasizes how important it is to work across party lines and labels to conserve beauty, the earth, the family: “There’s one thing we should definitely keep out: the nasty spirit of intolerance and incivility that dominates American political and cultural debate today. Life is too precious, and too important, to waste taking seriously people like the liberals who laughed at the prospect of bombing a Baptist church [story told in book], or conservatives who talk of liberals not as if they were human beings but enemies to be destroyed. The challenges facing us as individuals, as families, and as a society are grave, and the knee-jerk, party-line viciousness that drives our politics today gets us nowhere. I know too many liberals with whom I disagree on some pretty fundamental ideas, but how are also thoughtful and kind people who could even be my allies in public disputes over things important to both of us.”

As I said, there’s just so much good stuff in here. Here are a few more favorite quotes:

From the chapter “What Are Crunchy Conservatives?”: “Everyone of us can refuse, at some level, to participate in the system that makes us materially rich but impoverishes us spiritually, morally, and aesthetically. We cannot change society, at least not overnight, but we can change ourselves and our families.”

From “Education”: “Homeschooling tests a husband and wife’s commitment to the idea of family as mission. That is, do you think of our family as something that exists for no discernible purpose, or do you conceive of it as serving a larger mission? … The question is not whether or not you love your child, but what that love demands of you. Before thinking seriously about homeschooling, you have to think seriously about marriage and family—that is, what they really mean to you, and what you’re prepared to sacrifice for their sake. Homeschooling is not a neat thing you try, like a new diet or exercise routine; it is a demanding way of life, and it soon becomes the focus of a family’s life.”

From “Religion”: “If crunchy conservatism stands for anything, it’s the questioning of Progress and thoughtful but radical dissent from an ideology that believes the material universe is ours to manipulate to suit our ends.”

Read the book.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Year in Books: My Book Rankings for 2006

December 20, 2006

I think I hit a five-year-low this year with only 38 books—less than one book per week. I should include the dozen or more Young Adult read-alouds to make the list heftier, but somehow that feels like cheating.

I was really fascinated to see that all 5 nonfiction books that I read this year made it easily into the Top 10 list. In fact, I think that those were, indeed, my Top 5 favorite books. I always think that I really have to be in the mood to read nonfiction, and yet just the right nonfiction book can be absolutely spectacular and terribly memorable.

Out of my list of 44 books that I made last January, I read only 14. The rest of the books I picked up by recommendation either from friends, the Sonlight “Bibliovore” forum, or because the author was one I’d enjoyed previously. I'm missing a few reviews, but for most of the books, you can click on the title for a review. And so, without further rambling, my Year’s Best and Worst:

The Top 10
• Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (by Amy Krouse Rosenthal)
Eats, Shoots and Leaves (by Lynne Truss)
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother
Under the Banner of Heaven (by Jon Krakauer)
Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)(by Rod Dreher)
The Memory Keeper's Daughter (by Kim Edwards)
Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett)
Celia's House (by D.E. Stevenson)
Brave Enemies (Robert Morgan)
Storming Heaven (by Denise Giardina)

Very Enjoyable Books
The Solace of Leaving Early (Haven Kimmel)
Life of Pi (by Yann Martel)
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (by A. McCall Smith)
• Tears of the Giraffe (Ladies #1 Detective series, Book 2)
• Morality of Beautiful Girls (Ladies #1 series, Book 3)
The Kalahari Typing School for Men (Alexander McCall Smith
The Full Cupboard of Life (McCall Smith)
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (McCall Smith)
Blue Shoes and Happiness (by Alexander McCall Smith)
Portrait in Sepia (by Isabel Allende)
Lucia, Lucia (Adriana Trigiani)
Milk Glass Moon(Adriana Trigiani)
The Songcatcher (by Sharyn McCrumb)
Ghost Riders (by Sharyn McCrumb)
New Stories from the South, 2005

Marginally Making the List
Deception Point(by Dan Brown)
Digital Fortress (by Dan Brown)
44 Scotland Steet (by Alexander McCall-Smith)
Portuguese Irregular Verbs (by Alexander McCall Smith)
The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs (by A. McCall Smith)
At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances (by McCall Smith)
Sarah's Quilt(by Nancy Turner)
Monster (by Frank Peretti)

Books Which I Experienced the “Why-Did-I-Read-This-Book?”-Syndrome After Reading
Unspoken (by Angela Hunt)
Miss Julia Hits the Road (by Ann Ross)
A Wedding in December (by Anita Shreve)
Even Now (by Karen Kingsbury)
Fall on Your Knees (by Ann-Marie MacDonald)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Book Review: The Color of Water

December 17, 2006

The Color of Water by James McBride, subtitled "A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," is a double memoir, telling both the story of the author's mother and of his own life growing up in an interracial family. The author's mother, Ruth McBride Jordan (nee Rachel Shilsky), was born a Polish Jew whose father was a strict and cruel Orthodox rabbi. The family ultimately landed in rural Virginia in the 1930s, where they were despised and rejected as Jews. Her father was emotionally abusive and kept the family in a constant state of misery. Eventually Ruth ran away to New York City and found love and acceptance among Harlem's black community. When she married a black man in the early 1940s, her Jewish family said kaddish and sat shiva. She wasn't even allowed to go to the hospital when word came that her mother was dying. Ultimately Ruth left her Jewish roots completely behind and became a Christian and, with her first husband, founded an all black Baptist church. The author is the eighth of Ruth's 12 children--all of whom graduated from college and went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, journalists, etc.--and none of whom knew more than a smidgen about their mother's past until James began working on this book. This is a beautifully written book, switching between the author's voice and his mother's, creating a vivid picture both of Ruth's struggle with being rejected both as a young Jewish girl and as a white woman in a black world, and of the author's own struggles with having a white mother.

Friday, December 15, 2006

American Life in Poetry Favorites

December 15, 2006

I love the weekly column American Life in Poetry, whose sole mission is "to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture." No doubt the most common complaint about poetry is that it is too complicated--too untouchable. I truly believe that some poets set out to create obtuse poetry, burdening their language with obscure imagery and symbolism that only the author understands. The poems in the ALP column are selected by Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-2006. Kooser's goal is to select poems that represent every day life in America--poems that are profound in their simplicity. Below are a few of my favorites from the past few months of columns:

Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe
by Bill Holm

Start with the square heavy loaf
steamed a whole day in a hot spring
until the coarse rye, sugar, yeast
grow dense as a black hole of bread.
Let it age and dry a little,
then soak the old loaf for a day
in warm water flavored
with raisins and lemon slices.
Boil it until it is thick as molasses.
Pour it in a flat white bowl.
Ladle a good dollop of whipped cream
to melt in its brown belly.
This soup is alive as any animal,
and the yeast and cream and rye
will sing inside you after eating
for a long time.

Reprinted from "Playing the Black Piano," Milkweed Editions, 2004, by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 2004 by Bill Holm.

August Morning
by Albert Garcia

It's ripe, the melon
by our sink. Yellow,
bee-bitten, soft, it perfumes
the house too sweetly.
At five I wake, the air
mournful in its quiet.
My wife's eyes swim calmly
under their lids, her mouth and jaw
relaxed, different.
What is happening in the silence
of this house? Curtains
hang heavily from their rods.
Ficus leaves tremble
at my footsteps. Yet
the colors outside are perfect--
orange geranium, blue lobelia.
I wander from room to room
like a man in a museum:
wife, children, books, flowers,
melon. Such still air. Soon
the mid-morning breeze will float in
like tepid water, then hot.
How do I start this day,
I who am unsure
of how my life has happened
or how to proceed
amid this warm and steady sweetness?

Poem copyright (c) by Albert Garcia from his latest book "Skunk Talk" (Bear Starr Press, 2005) and originally published in "Poetry East," No. 44.

In November
by Lisel Mueller

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

Reprinted from "Alive Together: New and Selected Poems," Louisiana State University Press, 1996, by permission of the author. Poem copyright (c) 1996 by Lisel Mueller.

No Children, No Pets
by Sue Ellen Thompson

I bring the cat's body home from the vet's
in a running-shoe box held shut
with elastic bands. Then I clean
the corners where she has eaten and
slept, scrubbing the hard bits of food
from the baseboard, dumping the litter
and blasting the pan with a hose. The plastic
dishes I hide in the basement, the pee-
soaked towel I put in the trash. I put
the catnip mouse in the box and I put
the box away, too, in a deep
dirt drawer in the earth.

When the death-energy leaves me,
I go to the room where my daughter slept
in nursery school, grammar school, high school,
I lie on her milky bedspread and think
of the day I left her at college, how nothing
could keep me from gouging the melted candle-wax
out from between her floorboards,
or taking a razor blade to the decal
that said to the firemen, "Break
this window first." I close my eyes now
and enter a place that's clearly
expecting me, swaddled in loss
and then losing that, too, as I move
from room to bone-white room
in the house of the rest of my life.

Reprinted from "Nimrod International Journal: The Healing Arts," Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 2006, by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 2006 by Sue Ellen Thompson, whose latest book is "The Golden Hour," Autumn House Press, 2006.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Book Review: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

December 8, 2006

I am sad, so sad, that I have finished this book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. This is the kind of book that inspires me to write. I know it's not fair to her because she does have other books, but I want to read nothing else by Rosenthal, because I don't think any of her other works could possibly live up to this. The book is Rosenthal's own odd encyclopedia--one that anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s can identify with. As she explains in the foreward, "I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict...or recovered anything....I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story."

From there, the book is a collections of thoughts and events in one woman's life. Under "B," for example, you'll find thoughts on Birthdays; Bowling; Brodsky, Joseph; and Busy (to name a few). Here's part of the entry for "Busy": How you been? Busy. How's work? Busy. How was your week? Good. Busy. You name the question. "Busy" is the answer. Yes, yes, I know we are all terribly busy doing terribly important things. But I think more often than not, "Busy" is simply the most acceptable knee-jerk response....

I remember years ago my friend Lauren was reading Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge, and she kept laughing and underlining things, taking notes. That's how I was with this book. It is weird to me that Amy Rosenthal and I have utterly different day-to-day lives merely in that I am a really ordinary person and she is a best-selling author--not to mention the dozens of other differences--and yet I found myself constantly amazed that her observations ring so close to mine. Amy Rosenthal might add this as an entry to her book:
Pet Peeve: I find it annoying when people share favorite quotes from books. Why don't people understand that quotes are only meaningful to the reader herself?

Nonetheless, I am sharing a few of my favorite entries:
My kids keep asking me at dessert time, Mom, can I have this little sack of Skittles and this piece of gum? or (looking through their Halloween loot) How about this mini Baby Ruth and a candy cane? I take a quick look at the items they are holding up in their hands and, without hesitation, assess the inventory and respond accordingly, You can have half the candy cane and the mini Baby Ruth. They accept my arbitrary ruling as gospel, as if it stems from some great unwavering truth.

Sign, Bathroom
I saw a sign in a public restroom that said PLEASE DO NOT FLUSH EXCESSIVE AMOUNTS OF TOILET PAPER OR SHOES DOWN THE TOILET. THANK YOU. I so want to meet the person who flushed a shoe down the toilet, and made a sign like this necessary.

Wreck (excerpt)
...Back in the days when children were allowed to sit in the front seat, I used to tease my mom that throwing her arm out in front of me when she had to abruptly stop the car wouldn't do squat. Nonethelss, there would go her arm, landing an inch from my face at about chin level. Of course, not I understand; in fact, that's pretty much how I'd like to escort my kids through the world, with my arm extended, shielding them, lifting it only when I am sure the coast is clear. ...

Perhaps you think I didn't matter because I lived ____ years ago, and back then life wasn't as lifelike as it is to you now.....But I was here. And I did things. I shopped for groceries. I stubbed my toe. I danced at a party in college and my dress spun around. I hugged my mother and father and hoped they would never die. I pulled change from my pocket. I wrote my name with my finger on a cold, fogged-up window. I used a dictionary. I had babies. I smelled someone barbecuing down the street. ... I picked a scab. I wished I was older. I wished I was younger. I loved my children....I chewed on a blade of grass. I was here, you see. I was.

When I was a college senior, I did an independent course on Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. For months afterwards, everything I wrote and often even the way I spoke sounded like Vonnegut. I am afraid I am going to be thinking and speaking in Rosenthal for weeks to come. Her voice is that strong. This is probably the best book I've read this year, maybe even beating out Eats, Shoots and Leaves. [I'd feel amiss if I didn't issue an occasional strong-language warning with the book; the first few pages ("Orientation Almanac") are the worst.]

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Book Review: Miss Julia Hits the Road

December 6, 2006

This book by Ann Ross is another that leaves me wondering, "Why did I just spend nearly a week reading this book?" I read the first in the Miss Julia series a couple of years ago and enjoyed it; however, this one I could have (should have) closed in the middle and lived happily ever after. I will cross the Miss Julia books off of my future reading lists.