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book beginnings on Friday: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

lionheart

Astrid Lindgren is far better known as the author of Pippi Longstocking. But I remember Pippi only vaguely, and have remained enchanted by The Brothers Lionheart since I read it first as a child. I was excited to find a new copy and open it back up again. We begin:

Now I’m going to tell you about my brother. My brother, Jonathan Lionheart, is the person I want to tell you about. I think it’s almost like a saga, and just a very little like a ghost story, and yet every word is true; though Jonathan and I are probably the only people who know that.

I love this childlike tone. But don’t be fooled: this is a hell of a story, exciting and beautiful and poignant and scary and fantastic.

John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

The carefully researched and engaging story of John Muir, Alaska’s glaciers and the movement they built together.

muir ice

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is neither a straightforward biography of Muir nor a simple study of the global significance Alaska’s glaciers. Rather, Kim Heacox (The Only Kayak) is concerned with the relationship between Muir and the glaciers that rivaled Yosemite in his affections, and the impact that pairing had.

From a humble background in Scotland and Wisconsin, and between stints as a surprisingly apt businessman, Muir lived as a self-described tramp, ardent nature lover and student of flowers, trees, mountains and–upon finally reaching Alaska–glaciers. His famed role as author and activist came late in life, and not easily: he found writing hard work and political activism distasteful, though necessary. However, Muir made perhaps the greatest impact on conservation of any individual in United States history.

Heacox meticulously researched and lovingly describes Alaska’s rivers of ice and Muir’s path toward them, his emergence as writer and preservationist, and his far-ranging influence in legislation, literary legacy and new traditions–including the birth of the conservation movement as we know it. Though often descriptive rather than persuasive, Heacox lends his own voice to the cause in his final chapters: “To debate [climate change] is to give credibility to an argument that shouldn’t exist.” He closes by adding the arguments of Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Derrick Jensen to Muir’s, in the interest of preserving our wild spaces–thereby continuing Muir’s work.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 little dogs.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (audio)

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson describes his experience on the Appalachian Trail. He and his family had just moved to New Hampshire and he discovered the trail almost literally in his back yard, and decided, what the heck? he’d try walking it. At the last minute, an old friend agrees to join him, to his relief (now he won’t be alone out there with the bears); this old friend turns out to be overweight, a smoker, recently sober, and in no shape for such a lengthy walk in the woods, but they set off nevertheless, beginning to walk the AT in Georgia and headed for Maine.

a walk in the woodsOh, Bill Bryson, you funny, infuriating man. I have had a love-hate relationship, as they say, with this book. Bryson is very amusing, and this is his strongest suit; at his best, he had me giggling aloud on the train during my commute, which I try not to do because that’s weird, right? But he can be downright annoying as well. I’m not sure what he conceives this book actually is; amusing memoir? (For which, grade B+, at least.) Nature tale? (C-, on which more in a moment.) Camping satire? (Please stop.) His ineptitude at the outdoorsiness might be funny to somebody, but I just find it obnoxious and …well, kind of stupid. On the other hand, he hiked the Appalachian Trail for months, you guys, completing nearly 900 miles of it, and I have to respect that, as I’ve never done any such thing. But with such an opportunity to tell us about the AT, he spends a great deal of time telling us what poorly prepared rookie campers he and his friend Katz are; the trail itself is often just background, if even that. The book was 1/3 through before he even mentions a view, let alone describes one; and precious few times from then on. In fact, I think I’ve answered my question: Bryson conceives of this book as an amusing memoir, and the fact that it takes place on the AT is mere coincidence and in no way important to the story he has to tell.

When he rails against our destruction of natural areas and our Park Service’s poor management of those lands, he does a fine job, and I both learned something and enjoyed the polemic; but then he pulls punches, as when writing about tree diseases:

A great tragedy, of course. But how lucky, when you think about it, that these diseases are are least species-specific. Instead of a chestnut blight, or Dutch elm disease, or dogwood anthracnose, what if there was just a tree blight? Something indiscriminate and unstoppable, that swept through whole forests? In fact, there is. It’s called… acid rain.

No, Bryson, it’s called people! Call a spade a spade! Sigh.

Later in the book, when Bryson and Katz (the brunt of all the best jokes) part company temporarily, Bryson shifts focus a bit toward the history of the AT and gets less jokey. I appreciate this content, but it lacks the sparkle of his more humorous writing. In other words, I felt that A Walk in the Woods struggled throughout with an identity crisis.

The audio edition is good, I’ll say that without qualification. William Roberts’s reading is hilarious, and suits Bryson’s writing voice well. The book is absolutely at its best when describing Bryson & Katz’s mishaps on the trail, and only mildly interesting (for those interested in such things) when it leaves their narrative to wander the AT on a more intellectual level. One final pet peeve: as far as I can understand, Katz and Bryson do a lot of littering. Katz repeatedly handles the frustration of his heavy pack by dumping gear, and I don’t think there are garbage cans out in the woods. (I hope not.) There are a cigarette pack and three butts discarded by Katz at an important point. This makes me ANGRY. Littering on the AT?!

Representative quotation:

I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory.

Me too, Bryson.


Rating: 5 cream sodas.

I wasn’t sure whether to go with 4 or 5; but I did finish the book, so there’s that.

Teaser Tuesdays: Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

lillian&dash

I am really loving this treat: a glimpse into the lives (fictionally rendered here) of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, in their irresistible, funny, dry voices. Here, from inside Hellman’s head:

Store detectives. Hammett once held such a job, briefly. He quit. He identified too closely with the shoplifters.

Of course he did, dear.

Do check out Lillian & Dash; it’s great fun, and this audio edition is tops.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

An essay collection that earnestly examines feelings–the author’s and the world’s.

empathy

Leslie Jamison follows her debut novel, The Gin Closet, with an essay collection that has earned her the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The Empathy Exams opens with Jamison’s experience as a medical actor. In this role, she is given a character, complete with props and not only symptoms, but behaviors: body language, failure to make eye contact, dishonesty. In portraying deception, or a pretended lack of self-knowledge, Jamison contemplates what it is to feel, how we communicate what we feel and what we do with these communications.

While all her essays are linked by the topic of empathy, their subjects range widely. One essay about incarceration deals with a man serving time for mortgage fraud who continues to declare his innocence; another covers the case of the West Memphis Three and the documentaries about them that so moved Jamison as a young woman. “Morphology of the Hit” studies Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which Jamison calls “a map for storytelling,” and she uses that map to construct a narrative of the random act of violence she experienced in Nicaragua.

Within the context of pain, both injury and chronic illness receive repeated treatment. The Barkley Marathon, a grueling, almost unfinishable race through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, is presented both as a subcultural phenomenon and a subtext for pain. Jamison attends a conference for Morgellons patients–who believe they are infested with fibers and foreign matter crawling out of their skin–and the few doctors who will take them seriously; she finds herself responding with such empathy that she is in danger of catching the disease herself. She also leads readers on two “Pain Tours,” closing with the specter of female pain, and female guilt over pain–making the studied choice to apologize for neither.

Throughout these varied topics, Jamison makes references to many thinkers and influences, from Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), Susan Sontag and Frida Kahlo to her own friends. Her essays often dwell in the theoretical and the academic; she is interested in philosophies, and admits to difficulty experiencing, recognizing and sharing her own emotions–a difficulty that occasionally manifests in pedagogy. However, readers will finish with no doubt she is sincere in her quest to own, identify and comprehend empathy.


This review originally ran in the April 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 itchy patches.

Not a great rating, right? Reminder: when I write reviews for the Shelf I work to (mostly objectively) state what is of high quality about a book, and who might like it and why; if applicable, I mention who might want to steer clear. When I rate the books here, I am stating my personal reaction. I think Jamison did good research & does some good writing; but the academic & theoretical nature of these essays didn’t appeal to me. I was hoping for a more emotional reaction to the world; and specifically I was interested in the medical acting concept, which received relatively little play time. I wonder if *I* have an essay to write about empathy, based on my experiences working in a cancer hospital. I don’t know that I’m ready to write it right now; but if/when I do, it will be more emotional and less cerebral than these essays here. Not better or worse; but this is how my personal reaction – the personal appeal this book had for me – rates The Empathy Exams.

book beginnings on Friday: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

gone feral

Novella Carpenter’s Gone Feral tells the story of seeking a relationship with her mostly-estranged father, who prefers the outdoors to the city. It begins:

My dad officially went missing on October 17, 2009.

The morning I found out, I woke up to the hum of traffic from Interstate 980 harmonizing with the nickering of milk goats at my back stairs.

She managed to sneak right in there her own preferred ratio of city-to-outdoors: she has an “urban farm” in Oakland. Not a bad beginning, I think.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

An accessible study of Seneca, adviser to the appalling and scandalous Roman emperor Nero.

dying every day

Classical historian James Romm tackles Nero’s Roman Empire, and the controversies and contradictions of the moral philosopher Seneca, in the appropriately titled Dying Every Day.

Nero became emperor in 54 A.D., at the age of 16, under the thumb of his overbearing mother, Agrippina. Like his uncle Caligula–who had also come to the throne at a young age–Nero scandalized Rome with debauchery, exhibitionism, violence and terror. Romm’s chapters are tellingly named: Fratricide, Regicide, Matricide, Matriticide and Holocaust are bookended by two Suicides, the whole capped by an epilogue entitled Euthanasia.

Nero’s legacy is fairly straightforward, but the tutor brought out of exile to prime him for autocratic rule is a more complex character. Seneca was a Stoic who admired Socrates and Cato, prolifically produced moral treatises and scorned wealth. In his role as Nero’s teacher, mentor and trusted senior adviser, however, he colluded in murders within the royal family and amassed a personal fortune. His prose and drama leave behind a contradictory image, and historians from his contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier? Romm (Ghost on the Throne) doesn’t claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 bloodlines.
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