First, an admission: I know Mark Longaker, think he is a good writing teacher, and helped him write the curriculum that accompanies the book, so I am...moreFirst, an admission: I know Mark Longaker, think he is a good writing teacher, and helped him write the curriculum that accompanies the book, so I am hardly a neutral reviewer. Still, I do think the book is an excellent tool for the University of Texas's first-year rhetoric course. The content is similar to the Rhetorical Analysis text that he co-authored with Jeffrey Walker a few years ago, but it is delivered in a more condensed and accessible form. I think/hope students will appreciate that this book, the class's assignments, and the curriculum (daily lessons) all took shape around the same time and should flow seamlessly together.(less)
I loved this book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This book. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. If you've read my review of The Marble Faun, which I detested, you'll und...moreI loved this book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This book. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. If you've read my review of The Marble Faun, which I detested, you'll understand how stunned I am to have just written these words. Yet written them I have.
The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851, the same year as The Scarlet Letter. As in that more famous book, in Seven Gables Hawthorne explores the legacy of violence upon which white, wealthy United States culture is built. The story begins in the seventeenth century, when the Colonel Pyncheon accuses another man, Matthew Maule, of witchcraft. This is the era of the Salem witch hunts, and Maule is quickly convicted and executed. That Maule is, in fact, something of a sorcerer is curiously unproblematic for Hawthorne. He is far more interested in criticizing Pyncheon, who took advantage of the public's fear of witches to rid himself of an enemy. After Maule is hung, Pyncheon builds a spectacular house, a house with seven gables, where Maule's more modest house had previously stood. But Pyncheon doesn't occupy the house for long: He is soon found dead, probably murdered, with blood dripping down upon his beard.
All this is just the backstory. The majority of the book is set in what for the author would have been the present day. People are no longer being hung as witches, but American society still offers its most powerful members plenty of ways to oppress their comparatively less powerful compatriots. In the place of the gallows, there is the workhouse, the prison, and the asylum. Making use of all of these is Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, whose physical resemblance to his ancestor the Colonel is no coincidence. (less)
In 2014, universities across the world are celebrating the 200th birthday of the Cuban-Spanish writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. However, Espatoli...moreIn 2014, universities across the world are celebrating the 200th birthday of the Cuban-Spanish writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. However, Espatolino, like most of Avellaneda's novels, remains criminally under-read--a victim of the academy's lack of interest and imagination concerning historical romances written in the vein of Walter Scott. The book turns an old story about a patriotic Italian bandit into a relevant treatise on torture, governmental corruption, and colonial occupation, all themes the author had addressed, but not as thoroughly, in the earlier, more popular novel Sab.(less)
I say more about this book in the LitWit podcast, episode #9.
Like a lot of other readers, I loved A Thousand Acres for a several reasons but really wa...moreI say more about this book in the LitWit podcast, episode #9.
Like a lot of other readers, I loved A Thousand Acres for a several reasons but really want to talk about King Lear. On one hand, the fact that Smiley retells Shakespeare's story in the Ohio plains helps me respect the book as Important Literature. (Would it would have won a Pulitzer if the plot were entirely the author's own invention? We'll never know, but my guess is no.) In particular, I appreciated that she told the story from the perspective of Lear's daughter, Goneril/Ginny, who becomes infinitely more comprehensible/sympathetic, and that she doesn't let Lear off the hook for his bad parenting and self-absorption. I don't want to give away too many details.
But, on the other hand, the Lear plot constrains its characters' actions perhaps too much. They are so richly rendered, but every time they start to come to life, snap! Smiley reminds us they're not their own people; they're doomed to repeat the Lear characters' tragic mistakes. I guess there is something to be said about fate here: By sticking her characters to the preexisting plot Smiley reinforces Shakespeare's point that humans have no say over our destiny, that whether we're kings or peasants we're going to get wet when we're caught out in the storm. Still, I just didn't believe--or didn't want to believe--that these characters I mostly liked would do the things they ultimately do.(less)
I love but absolutely do not understand Bear Family Records. Since the late 1970s, it has operated from its home base in Germany, issuing rare, old-ti...moreI love but absolutely do not understand Bear Family Records. Since the late 1970s, it has operated from its home base in Germany, issuing rare, old-time music that U.S. companies won't touch in sets so complete, so deluxe, that it cannot possibly be making any money. This Carter Family collection is an excellent case in point. It is comprised of twelve -- twelve! -- discs of music the Carters recorded between their discovery in 1927 and disbanding in the early 1940s, including all their known recordings and even a few alternate takes; an interview with "Mother" Maybelle Carter from the 1960s; and a large, hardcover book. The book, which I would call "liner notes" if it was about 150 pages shorter, includes rare photographs, introductory material by country music historian Charles K. Wolfe and, most helpfully, notes from the set's producers on every recording session. That this is the definitive collection of the Carter Family's recordings there is no doubt. But who will seek it out when the majority of the Carter Family's songs are available, for free, on public domain sites like Archive.org? Who has $275 (the current price on Amazon) to commit to it? Like I said, I am glad Bear Family does what it does; I just don't know where it finds the cash and steadiness of purpose to do it.(less)
Humboldt county, sparsely-populated, green, surrounded by ancient redwood trees, is, in some ways, the epicenter of marijuana production in the United...moreHumboldt county, sparsely-populated, green, surrounded by ancient redwood trees, is, in some ways, the epicenter of marijuana production in the United States. In the 1960s, hippies fleeing corporate greed and the government's violence and hypocrisy built communities here. Now, the place is inhabited by the families they established and, increasingly, by opportunistic businesspeople who have transformed the cultivation of marijuana from a small-time, family affair into a powerful, community-defining industry. There is perhaps no other place where the ups and downs of the United States' ban on marijuana have been experienced more intensely. The people of Humboldt have built schools and enriched their community in numerous other ways using marijuana profits. They have also been invaded by the U.S. military, raised their children behind suffocating cloaks of secrecy, and lost too many friends and neighbors to the violence that always accompanies underground markets.
I decided to read the book after the University of Texas, where I work, named it its "First-Year Forum" text for the 2014-15 school year. To clarify, this means that all students who enroll in the first-semester composition course--several thousand, in total--will be required to purchase and read the book, and then to research and write about the controversies it raises. The obvious one is whether marijuana should be legalized, for either medical or recreational purposes, at either the state, national, or even international level. However, the stories the author shares raise additional questions, some of them more specific, all of them reminding me that the legalization debate is connected to other pressing social issues. If marijuana is to be legal in some capacity, how is it to be grown? Is the industrial method, which raises thousands of plants in record time under intensely-hot bulbs, sustainable? If marijuana is to be restricted, how should we deal with offenders? Is it right to send as many people to prison as we have for dealing and consuming pot? What do we make of the fact that the majority of these prisoners are black or Latino? If the United States legalizes (or continues to criminalize) the use of marijuana, what will the consequence be for the other countries from which we import so much of the drug? What responsibility do we have to help our neighbors--for example, Mexico--control their marijuana production? These are just a few examples.
The book is "relevant," even "important," now because Colorado, Washington, and the country of Uruguay have legalized marijuana (and other states and nations seem poised to follow). But I think Humboldt is more than just an intervention into a timely political debate. It is the result of a year's worth of time spent among the people of Humboldt and, as the author explains, it is just as much a "snapshot" of northern California living as it is an argument in favor of marijuana legalization. A hundred years from now, when the business about marijuana has been settled, I think readers will be able to look back on the book as a telling cultural document as well as a finely-crafted narrative. Whatever you're more interested in now--politics or plot--I recommend you give this book a chance.(less)
I talk about this book in the new episode of the LitWit podcast series, so I'll keep this written review short. I've known about this book since about...moreI talk about this book in the new episode of the LitWit podcast series, so I'll keep this written review short. I've known about this book since about 2006, when I ran across selections from it in one of the Best American Short Stories anthologies I was rolling through at the time. It is comprised of anecdotes--some real, some made up, but you'll have a hard time telling which is which--relating to the author's life in upstate New York. What impressed me about the selection I read several years ago is the author's ability to not only convey, but also wring poignant human truths from, simple everyday experiences. Maybe my problem with the book is that it is one hundred anecdotes instead of just five or ten. After a while, they start running together and feeling rather more measured than spontaneous--and spontaneity is part of what I think characterizes the anecdote. Technically, the book is well-written, and I would be interested to read one of Lennon's novels.(less)
Whether Warren has told the "history of honky tonk music" (as her subtitle promises) or her own history through that of honky tonk music is up for deb...moreWhether Warren has told the "history of honky tonk music" (as her subtitle promises) or her own history through that of honky tonk music is up for debate. Even so, I enjoyed the book, which I found lively and readable. Most importantly, it keeps the fun in a topic -- music -- that overly scholarly texts tend to drain of its appeal. Recommended.(less)
I held off reviewing MaddAddam because my friend Carly and I discussed it at length in the second episode of our new podcast series, LitWit. Anyway, s...moreI held off reviewing MaddAddam because my friend Carly and I discussed it at length in the second episode of our new podcast series, LitWit. Anyway, suffice it to say I liked the book less than I liked its predecessors in the series, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Atwood's prose is always a delight, but I think the characters are finally overwhelmed by the weirdness of the world she has created and the need to tie up loose threads. I'm looking forward to seeing what the author does next.(less)
A couple of months ago, I had to make a split decision about the textbook I would use for the "Rhetoric of Country Music" course I had just had approv...moreA couple of months ago, I had to make a split decision about the textbook I would use for the "Rhetoric of Country Music" course I had just had approved. I selected Will the Circle Be Unbroken because it seemed comprehensive, because it was positively reviewed, and because it looked inexpensive: I picked up my copy for less than a dollar (sans shipping) on the Amazon Marketplace. Now, I've had the chance to read the book from front to back, and giving it five stars is as much a testament to its quality as it is a sigh of relief. I made the right choice.
As the title indicates, the book is a history of country music. It is big and glossy enough to look like a "coffee table book," but editors Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash have put together a tome that's worth far more than simply thumbing through. Will the Circle Be Unbroken is a swift and credible history, taking readers from the technological advances and market interests that gave rise to country music in the 1920s to the country pop that has dominated radio stations since the turn of the twenty-first century. The book's chapters break country music's long history into smaller chunks, utilizing timelines to place developments like honky tonk, the Nashville Sound, and neo-traditionalism within their appropriate historical context, and generously spotlighting the most influential artists and recordings. It's only 350 pages, which means some notable names get left out (sorry Barbara Mandrell), but whether or not your favorite artist gets ink here, you will find plenty to help you understand the larger world she or he inhabited. Really, though, I was stunned how briskly and thoroughly it all progressed.
If I had to say what sets this particular book above other titles in the increasingly long list of country music histories, I would say it is that is takes full advantage of its contributors' areas of expertise. It is hard to tell what, exactly, Kingsbury and Nash wrote themselves because they are credited so infrequently. Instead, most of the book's chapters, sidebars, lists, and inserts are composed by dozens of the most committed country music historians, journalists, and artists who were still living at the time of the book's publication. I don't mean to imply that the book is a kind of fan-penned love letter to country music--in fact, for a book published by the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum it is admirably critical of certain individuals (Ralph Peer) and technological developments (auto-tune)--but, rather, that it is written by people who are absolute experts in their chosen topics. If I have any complaint about the contributions, it's that the historians and journalists write noticeably better and seem more willing to reflect deeply on the stakes and course of country music. By comparison, the playlists by Brenda Lee, Merle Haggard, and Keith Urban seem shallow and, honestly, kind of boring. The exception is Rosanne Cash, who is equally adept at writing paragraphs and wistful song lyrics.
Country music remains alive and (arguably) well today, nearly ten years after Circle's first printing, and it's high time the book were updated and reprinted to capture the field's more recent twists and turns. I guess the real question is whether or not Kingsbury, Nash, and the Country Music Hall of Fame would have any interest in revisiting this project, and there are lots of reasons why they probably wouldn't. Chief among these is the number of other, newer books (like Jocelyn Neal's Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History) retelling the story this one had already told so well.
Anyway, I am satisfied with this edition for now. My decision-making abilities are vindicated.(less)
What stands out to me about this collection is Alanna Nash's skill at conducting interviews. When she spoke with him, George Jones had just completed...moreWhat stands out to me about this collection is Alanna Nash's skill at conducting interviews. When she spoke with him, George Jones had just completed his famous stay in a mental hospital, so of course she asks him about it. When she interviews Tammy Wynette, who had literally just returned home from an extended stay in the hospital for some uncertain surgical procedure or another, she asks how it feels to be considered country music's biggest drama queen. These are only two examples. If, on one hand, Nash is able to write this book because she has built trust and friendship with a number of country music's biggest names, on the other, she proves she isn't starstruck or swept up in the publicity machine by asking tough questions. It is true, as she states in her Introduction, that a number of these interviews are dated; but, like I said in my review of Nicholas Dawidoff's In the Country of Country, I am still glad to have them in print. Far too many of these country music legends are no longer with us, and so it's good to have a book like this keeping their stories alive.(less)
Although I read this book a few weeks ago, I have held off writing a review because I plan to talk about it in an upcoming podcast with my friend, Car...moreAlthough I read this book a few weeks ago, I have held off writing a review because I plan to talk about it in an upcoming podcast with my friend, Carly, and I haven't quite decided what I want to say about it. On one hand, it is an admirable storyline with two credible lead characters. On the other, the illustrations have a somewhat cheesy quality, and the plot feels a bit, I don't know, restricted for a book that cost me $15. It's kind of like going to the theater to see the new Star Trek movie but being shown, instead, a 50-minute episode from one of the TV series. Unsurprisingly, the author says in the closing matter that he hopes he is able to turn the book into a series.(less)
To the End of June is a nonfiction piece about the successes and failures of the foster care system, particularly as it is organized in the state of N...moreTo the End of June is a nonfiction piece about the successes and failures of the foster care system, particularly as it is organized in the state of New York. It's not the kind of book I would typically pick up, since it's so far removed from the stuff I'm currently reading for my dissertation, but it's one UT's Department of Rhetoric is considering using with first-year students next year, so I decided to check it out. The author, Cris Beam, strikes an excellent balance, bringing readers into specific foster families, pointing out the many problems with foster care as it plays out in New York, and demonstrating for readers just how badly we, as a society, care for the kids who find themselves "wards of the state" or shipped off to live with people they don't know. At the end of the book, at about the time the heartbreak implied in the title becomes clear, it hit me that if I truly cared about children in the United States I would foster a child. Even better, a teenager. Highly recommended.(less)
I plunged into this book having already watched and loved the first season of the smash Netflix show. This isn't a fair way to approach any original t...moreI plunged into this book having already watched and loved the first season of the smash Netflix show. This isn't a fair way to approach any original text, I know... And yet...
And yet what is most satisfying about the TV show is that it freely admits Piper's privilege and creates space for a whole lot of less privileged women, most of them women of color, to share their stories of crime and incarceration. There are a number of differences between the book and the show, but the biggest is that the show's most compelling characters -- the Caribbean cleaning lady, the transgendered stylist, etc. -- are either sidelined in the book or missing altogether.
As another reviewer pointed out, the book is a memoir, and Kerman probably did not want to tell any story except her own. The problem, I guess, is that the story she has to tell doesn't carry the heft I was expecting. I do not mean to downplay the surely trying months she spent in Danbury, but really her complaints about things like the lack of hair conditioner and inadequate selection of books make her book sound a bit more like a travel narrative than an indictment of the United States' "chickenshit" system of justice.
This was a conflicting read for me, as I am sure it is for anybody who picked it up expecting it to match the TV show's admittedly exaggerated intensity. Ultimately, I think it will appeal more to readers interested in learning more about the various ways U.S. prisons could be reformed to be more humane and better carry out their purpose to punish and reform.(less)
This past week, while a lot of people carried on the social media debate about that Duck Dynasty patriarch's newest homophobic remarks, I found myself...moreThis past week, while a lot of people carried on the social media debate about that Duck Dynasty patriarch's newest homophobic remarks, I found myself finishing Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence. Yes, the two events are related.
Printed in the mid-1990s (but unfortunately unknown to me until just recently), the book is a collection of stories for, and about, gay, lesbian, and questioning teenagers. The editor, Marion Dane Bauer, points out in her introduction that "One out of ten teenagers attempts suicide," and "One out of three of those does so because of concern about being homosexual." Her hope, indeed the hope of every author included in the anthology, is that through the power of stories these potential suicide risks will realize that they are not flawed, that they are not alone.
Represented in the book are many of the 1990s' most prominent YA writers, including Lois Lowry (Number the Stars, The Giver), Bruce Coville (My Teacher Is an Alien), and Nancy Garden (Annie on My Mind). Like every anthology, this one includes some pieces that are stronger than others -- my favorite, strangely enough, was the one by Gregory Maguire (Wicked), whose Oz books I dislike -- but its stories also face another challenge, that is, how to preach tolerance without coming across as, well, preachy. Of course, some contributors do better here than others, but really, the worst I can say about any of the stories is that they try rather too hard to drill into their young readers admirable lessons about valuing one's self and the differences of others.
It is also worth noting that several authors -- Maguire, Jacqueline Woodson, and William Sleater, for example -- deliberately write about queer young people who are not white, or who are not even from the United States. In a lot of ways, these particular stories are well ahead of a lot of lily white U.S.-centric queer research being conducted in universities at the same point in time.
Ultimately, the question is, is a book like Am I Blue? still needed twenty years later, even after several states in the union have legalized gay marriages and queer characters proliferate YA fiction more than ever before? The answer, I guess, emerged in this week's Duck Dynasty hullabaloo. As long as white, wealthy, heterosexual people with privileged access to the media continue to make statements that lead kids to believe their differences make them defective, and as long as similarly privileged people like Sarah Palin and an unfortunate number of people I am "friends" with on Facebook continue to defend their right to do so, then yes, there is still an emphatic need for this book, and many, many more like it.(less)
On one hand, we all already know the nineteenth century was, in the United States, a century of racial prejudice and structural violence against peopl...moreOn one hand, we all already know the nineteenth century was, in the United States, a century of racial prejudice and structural violence against people of color. But on the other hand, O'Brien argues, sometimes what we think we know isn't quite right. In this book, which will appeal primarily to specialists of nineteenth century literary (particularly sentimental fiction), she analyzes several texts that optimistically portray desire between people of white and black African ancestry. In her view, these depictions of interracial love counter the U.S. national imaginary and are, in their own ways, rebellious. I think she does a better job inviting us to seek out the rebellion in nineteenth-century texts than she does locating and explaining it herself.(less)