Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between the worldFinal review of the year, and the book is a great one. Pops reviewed it first, and I knew it was one I needed, but it just took me a while to get to it. The reason I finally prioritized it now is because I suspected a student needed it – actually, that was Pops’s suggestion, too – and so I needed to read it first, to know, and to be able to recommend it to her. So I have that student to thank for my own education, which is often how it works.

Coates speaks painful truths about our society and the legacy of slavery and ongoing racism in this country. He speaks with specificity and detail of his upbringing in a Baltimore that was worlds away from what he saw on TV growing up, the world where “there were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak.” I think of his narrative as accomplishing three things: a review of the evils of racism in this country since its founding and continuing today; a memoir of the experiences of one man, his coming-of-age and coming to realize the above, and of growing up in Baltimore; and a review of the writings and philosophies of Black American thinking and activism. Coates has an inquisitive mind from a young age. In this book, he actively investigates the nature of education, and who gets to define the value of a civilization. I loved the part where we learn that his mother used to have him, as a child, write essays about his own mistakes. This taught him to question, and that the question itself, not any purportive answer, is the point. This lesson has got to be the most important lesson anyone can offer a young person. This is the concept behind the classic liberal arts education, right: critical thinking?

Coates assigns his son the same essays in response to his own transgressions.

I gave [these assignments] to you not because I thought they would curb your havior–they certainly did not curb mine–but because these were the earliest acts of iterrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing–myself.

Oh, that I could teach one or two of my own students the same.

I have tried to write more about this book and what it accomplishes, both artistically/stylistically and in its content, but I keep observing that my dad did it better. (I especially like his work with what he calls metaphorical coding, and the Richard Wright poem that gives this book its title and a refrain.) His book review says everything I’d like to say about this book, and says it beautifully, so let me again try to send you back to it. Thanks, Pops.


Rating: 9 open, easy smiles.

reread: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (audio)

By coincidence, this book review was next in line when today’s date came up. But it feels perfectly appropriate for this gift-giving holiday, because Brian Doyle is a gift, and I think this novel is my favorite of his.

I have returned to my very first Brian Doyle experience with Martin Marten (originally reviewed here), because I miss him and love his work. Having enjoyed a few other audiobooks of his, I thought I’d try Travis Baldree’s narration.

It’s very good; I enjoyed the different voices for each character, from Maria to Dave to each of Dave’s parents, to Moon and Emma Jackson and Miss Moss and Mr. Douglas the trapper. I thought he preserved the sense of wonder and boundlessness that characterizes Doyle’s work. I found myself not thinking of the narration much, actually, and just living in the world of Martin Marten, and I think the disappearance of an art form’s container is often the highest compliment.

And the book is everything I remembered. As is said early in The Princess Bride, this book has everything it. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Well, there’s no fencing here, but there is death and birth and love and fighting and beginnings and endings and the easy connection of the two, and an un-wedding, and blizzards and springtimes and basketball and running and maps and trees and all the animals and plants and beings… Brian Doyle inspires lists like these; he writes in lists like these. He is all-encompassing, in the best and least pretentious way. For example, here is a paragraph that caught my eye this time around.

And deep mysteries too, things that no one could ever explain and in most cases no one ever knew or apprehended or discovered–a new species of snow flea mutating in a dark crevasse on Joel Palmer’s glacier; a blue bear born to two black ones but alive only for a day; a place where trees and bushes and ferns decided to intertwine and make a small green cottage complete with walls and a roof and a door; a cave with the bones of a creature eight feet tall inside; a pencil lost by Joel Palmer at nine thousand feet of elevation on the south side of the mountain, long ago encased in ice and now some twenty feet beneath the surface, waiting to be found in the year 2109 by a young woman named Yvon, who would be amazed that the pencil never wore out no matter how much she used it, as if it had patiently stored up words for two centuries; and much else, more than we could account even if this book never ended and its pages and pulses went on forever, and it was the longest book in the history of the world. Even then, it couldn’t catch more than scraps and shards of the uncountable stories on the mountain, of bird and beast, tree and thicket, fish and flea, biome and zygote. And this is not even to consider the ancient slow stories of the rocks and their long argument with the lava inside the mountain and the seething and roiling miles beneath the mountain, all the way to the innermost core of the sphere, which might be a story of metallic heat so intense that to perceive it would be your final act in this form; another mystery.

A dear friend of mine, nearing the end of her MFA study, read this book on my recommendation and sent me a message that said simply, “my prose is lifeless.” Well, it’s not, but I know what she meant: Doyle’s just jangles with life. I know he is not for everyone. The above paragraph includes a single sentence fragment that is 198 words long. He gushes. But for those of us it works for, I think it works very well.

I wish I could go to live in one of Brian Doyle’s fictional towns. Although it does snow a lot there.

If you love the natural world and are charmed by the idea of not privileging any one species (ahem, humans) over all the rest; if you are excited by the many possibilities for joy in the world, big and small; if you love life, words, all kinds of critters, and even humans; if knowledge for its own sake thrills you; if you are prone to being pleased by lists and wonder–do give the novels of Brian Doyle a try. He has made this world a far better place.


Rating: there is no reason to amend my original 10 tomatoes.

Educated by Tara Westover

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories.

Last Friday, I briefly reviewed Tara Westover’s talk at West Virginia University. Now here’s her book.

It’s a hell of a book. I’ve written about this before: every book has the two layers, the content itself – the story it tells – and the telling of it. Sometimes one or the other clearly dominates. I read a lot of books in which the telling, the lovely lyric or literary or weirdly styled telling of it, trumps the story itself (man comes of age, meets woman, ho hum). And I read some that are very much about the story, where the telling is just serviceable. I sometimes remark when they both align to a remarkable level. This one is noteworthy because the story is so outrageous: truly, it would stand alone as a sensational tale (which is not altogether a good or a bad thing, although rather maligned in memoir). But it doesn’t rely on the shock value of its story to carry it; the telling is also elegant, and Westover makes some wise observations along the way.

As I wrote the other day, Westover was raised by some pretty extreme isolationist Mormons. She was not allowed to go to school or to a doctor. Her father seems a little nuts; he is a religious zealot, insists upon total control in the household, is prone to wild mood swings, and late in the story, becomes something of a cult leader. He makes his living by scrapping metal from his junkyard(s) and doing odd building jobs. His seven children are expected to work as part of the family business – with him, or with their mother, a midwife and homeopathic healer. This latter was not her idea, but his, so that the family would not need doctors, and as a way to serve God. She is a reluctant student but eventually finds her stride and gets serious about faith healing (which involves something she calls muscle testing, clicking her fingers and whatnot). It’s all pretty far out for me. Because Dad is crazed about the junkyard/scrapping work, and because he lives in a bit of a fantasy where nothing bad happens to the righteous, he is opposed to safety measures, actively forbidding gloves and protective eyewear (etc.) and using ludicrously dangerous equipment. So the family suffers quite a few serious injuries. They do enter the hospital a time or two, but also treat third degree burns over a large percentage of the body, and head wounds involving exposed brains, at home. So, the first sensationalist point of this story is the extreme isolation, zealotry, and risk-taking the Westover family lives.

The second is abuse. Young Tara is absolutely placed in mortal danger by her family, repeatedly and constantly, and this is a form of abuse. But the greater issue is with one of her older brothers, who beats and tortures her as a matter of daily life when she is a teenager. He inflicts sprains and I think one broken bone. “I found myself cleaning the toilet every morning, knowing my head might be inside it before lunch.” He laughs at her, taunts her, calls her whore until she knows deep within herself that it is so, and he gaslights her into feeling that she’s imagined all of the above. I can’t do the trauma justice here. Talk about shock value.

The abuse extends from here. She and a sister try to confront the family about the brother’s abuse (which apparently extends to several of his siblings), but this results in a range of lies and false fronts, and no change. Eventually, it results in each whistleblower being invited to recant and be received back into the fold, or be disowned, which is Tara’s fate. At the time of the book’s writing, she is not in touch with her parents or most of her siblings.

But again, her book does not rely on these events for its impact – or at least, not entirely. It’s hard to think about her life without concentrating on these stories (as I have here in this review). But meanwhile, Tara gets an undergraduate degree from Salt Lake City’s Brigham Young University; travels to Cambridge on a Gates scholarship; receives an MPhil from Trinity at Cambridge; studies at Harvard; and gets her PhD back at Cambridge. This would be a remarkable academic journey for the most privileged among us, but especially so for someone who never set foot in a classroom until Brigham Young, who had no support at home for her education, and who battled mental illness and extraordinary obstacles and gaslighting from her family at every step along the way. For dog’s sake, she takes school breaks at home where she is gaslit and physical abused, then returns to the school grind. It’s quite bizarre and almost unbelievable.

So, let’s mention the whiff of controversy. The Westover family is divided: some of Tara’s siblings back up her story, while others (and of course her parents) deny what she has written. I’m not especially concerned. If they are the people we’ve read about in these pages, we expect them to react in these ways. It’s hard to confirm such a story, but she does seem careful to consult the memories of others (those siblings she’s in touch with), and why would they support her if indeed this were fiction? I tend to believe her at this point.

I don’t think Tara’s done growing and learning – she’s just in her early 30s now, and I appreciated her comments at WVU last month, that she doesn’t know what’s next for her. (Nothing more arrogant than thinking we know what’s coming next! Or maybe that’s just the van-dweller in me.) I don’t think she’s done integrating the lessons of her spectacularly weird upbringing; we probably all still have a lot to learn, from her and from ourselves. But I think her telling of this story is careful, thoughtful, and compelling. She throws no one under the bus; even the abusive brother, even her enabling, turncoat mother, even her possibly mad father, get compassion, second-guessing, the ambivalence of a narrator who knows she doesn’t know everything. I found her someone I’d be glad to be friends with. She has a curious mind, and is still investigating what’s happened to her (although she’s come a long way in protecting herself).

There are other elements here to appreciate as well. For example, Tara’s attachment to her family is also inextricable from her attachment to place, the mountain where she’s grown up exerting a hold on her (and you know I like a sense of place). She meditates on the value of education, and its different definitions – the value of open-mindedness, and of knowing there is a larger world out there than your own particular mountain.

I am left quite impressed – by what Tara has lived through and overcome, by her journey and her accomplishments, and by her thoughtful, precise, contemplative, considered, literary telling of it. And I am curious about what she’ll take on next. I’m very glad I read this book. (And very sorry to miss the second book club meeting on it, but that’s another story.)


Rating: 7 tinctures.

guest review: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Pops

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel is The Water Dancer, a victim of my high expectations I’m afraid; so this is an ambivalent, and very subjective, review. First, the challenges: an indirect narrative style that often confounds and obscures, with overworked symbolism and metaphor that just didn’t work for me. I appreciated the general sweep of the story and many key characters, and ultimately, the ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ I think it all carries. But ultimately the journey was not as satisfying as it may have been with a more comfortable form. Nevertheless, I match this with Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and films 12 Years a Slave and Harriet*, all providing healthy realistic images of slavery, and the human stories embedded in that history.

We follow first-person narrator Hiram Walker from a failing Virginia tobacco plantation (owned by his white father, who owns his slave mother), to a vibrant, diverse and urban Philadelphia before the Fugitive Slave Act, front-line base for the ‘Underground’; and then his return to the plantation. The story’s sweep is like the contrast of those places: from stifling oppression and decay, to liberating promise, and back again. That middle is also a high point in this work; it encompasses Coates’ version of important real characters and events at a time of social ferment wider than just abolition. Notably: William Still (a monumental historical figure whose book The Underground Railroad Records Coates credits in a brief Author Note); wonderful characterization of the vibrant city at a social moment in time that was creative and liberating; and Harriet Tubman, by that name a character in this story, including a slave-liberating foray into her native Maryland, based on fact. (It was uncanny and tremendously satisfying to see the wonderful film Harriet on opening weekend, just as her story was unfolding in my reading.) Sophie (focus of Hiram’s affection); episodic ally Corrine and her loyal aide Hawkins; the tragic Dr. Fields; and the whole White family in Philadephia – are all important and endearing supporting characters.

In his telling, Coates shows a sophisticated sense of history as he describes the workings of plantation economics, terribly destructive to human lives, rich naturally abundant soil and the values of a nation in the process of forming itself. The central idea that anchors Coates’ tale is one to embrace: nothing in this world is ‘pure’ – not simple, and not just one thing (except perhaps the evil institution of slavery, a touchstone never questioned by our protagonist and his cohort). It’s a lesson in dialectics, in nuance; life is messy and non-linear, throwing us unexpected curves, confusion and tragic irony. Individuals thought to be one thing, can surprise in their complexity. Bloodlines are all mixed up, connecting people in surprising ways, and not always predictive of their soul. Freedom is not a place one can entirely escape to; it is much more complicated than that. In all this, Coates offers useful space for observing both our history, and our human-centric world.

Given that I know Coates to be a thoughtful and helpful social observer, and a skilled writer, I suspect he wrote exactly the book he wanted to write. I also expect it will age well with me, and perhaps more perspective will emerge as Coates’ career matures.

Sounds like a careful and considered response, Pops, and thank you. This is why an unusual narrative structure is a risk. Metaphor can be overdone; and we all have different thresholds, of course. I appreciate you wondering how it will age with you, too, though.


*I want to acknowledge that the movie Harriet has seen some very mixed reactions. There have been some concerns (like about casting). There have also been some counterpoints; this source claims the white savior allegation is not factual. I thought Buzzfeed and Business Insider (of all places) did a decent job of trying to parse the controversies. (I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m just sampling a few other thinkers here.)

Unforgettable Portraits by Rosamund Kidman Cox

Lions, tigers and bears–and more–light up the incandescent pages of this collection of stunning wildlife photography.

Unforgettable Portraits is a beautiful, large-format collection of images from several decades of the international Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Each stunning photo–close-ups and dioramas; elephants, leopards, ants and springtails–gets accompanying text explaining the species, the context, the photographer’s equipment and technique, with an emphasis on endangered species and climate change. Readers meet the Atlantic wolfish, the spotted-tailed quoll and the Namib Desert’s welwitschia, and learn that spirit bears have “a mutation of the same gene that gives rise to red hair in humans” and that the photographer must be part wildlife scientist to get these shots, designing blinds and lying in wait for days, weeks and longer.

These 70 stunning images, by more than 50 photographers from more than 20 countries, would make a wondrous gift for any lover of wildlife, strangeness and beauty.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2019 gift 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 whiskers illuminated.

Appalachia North by Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my earlier review, I am so deeply pleased to shared with you today this review in the Fall 2019 issue of Still: The Journal.

Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North is both memoir and outward-looking examination of place: what it means to be from somewhere, how our relationship to home can change, and the complicated and too-often negative role Appalachia plays in the national imagination, and in its own.

Ferrence was forty when he received a life-changing diagnosis…

Please click over to read the full review. Look for my interview with Matt on Friday. And many thanks again to the Editors at Still for considering and accepting my work.

guest review: A Song for the River by Philip Connors, from Pops

Just a few lines, but good ones I think, from Pops about Philip Connors’s latest, which I originally reviewed here.

This week I finished reading this one. All the things you said, and probably more, as you also said. Really difficult reading sometimes (no, I have not read All the Wrong Places).

For me, it was very much an offering of lessons in seeking to fully embrace, process and find peace with loss – of so many different kinds. It’s a careful balance, between complete denial (mainstream versions of distraction) and over-thinking things into dark chasms of the soul. We both know people at the extremes and the wide expanse in between. Connors is indeed courageous to seek this balance ‘publicly’ – and well-equipped to give voice to the messy, insecure & fraught process. I am in awe.

Me, too, and always. I’m glad to hear you found the same. Phil, keep writing.

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