Having such trouble lately finishing a novel, I set about browsing for something entirely different for me. Dodgers pulled me in and kept me engaged (and talking about it) from beginning to end. What a great surprise!
I found Dodgers through my library’s audiobook app when browsing through the African-American Literature section. It wasn’t until today, novel completed, I discovered that the author, Bill Beverly, is a white man. That may say something about his ear or my ignorance, I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how that knowledge would have changed my enjoyment of the story. Just wanted to mention it here for context.
The novel follows East, a young African-American kid who runs a crew standing yard by a drug house in Los Angeles. (Take that, Henry James.) East is conscientious in the way you’d want your accountant or lawyer to be—focused on every detail and driven to accomplish his goals, although maybe a little humorless. East’s boss sends him and three other boys in a van to Wisconsin to commit a murder. No cell phones, no credit cards, no weapons (in theory), just each other.
Of course, it all goes wrong. Or it goes right in the very worst ways. The amazing thing about the narrative is that it’s mostly a slow, cross-country road trip that’s packed with tension. Knowing what they’re going to do, every encounter is spiked with risk. And seeing their amazement at what America outside LA looks like leaves the reader wondering how they’re ever going to know how to go unnoticed once they finish their mission.
The author must average one metaphor per sentence when describing the land that East and the others travel through, but it's effective. And staying as close as he does to East’s POV is effective too. East may not be the smartest character or the most fun or the most violent, and he likely has a concussion for part of the trip. But his eyes don’t miss much. He’s constantly analyzing every situation, sizing up the risks and guessing at others’ motivations. This is how he has survived in LA. But will it be enough for Wisconsin? Or Iowa? Or Ohio?
If modern crime novels have this sort of character-focused, slow-burn tension, I’ll start reading more of them!
One Summer provides a rather comprehensive view of America in 1927, with a special focus on New York, Boston, and Chicago. Bryson does a great job of providing the background information you need to make sense of the summer's news stories, and he lets you know how things turned out in the long run.
The book includes a lot of details that feel very well researched. The narrative-style stories are supported by data--pounds of food served, tickets sold, money made, hours in flight, home runs hit by various people and teams, etc.--that got a little overwhelming in the audio version, but probably work better in the print version.
The two men that really anchor the book (and who had incredible summers) are Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. I also learned a lot about Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Jack Dempsey as well as, to a lesser extent, Henry Ford, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Capone, and many more.
In many ways, hearing the stories of 1927 put today's news stories in perspective. Things have been worse in America. Racism and antisemitism ran rampant. Prohibition was still the law of the land. Floods overwhelmed both sides of the Mississippi. Bombs regularly blew up public officials' homes, and the murder rates were higher than they are today. But most criminals went free because forensic science was not nearly as advanced. Journalists desperate to increase circulation printed whatever sensational story they thought would sell, regardless of the truth. Although most people didn't know it yet, the economy was about to crash devastatingly. In 1927, most people had grown up in an America that was constantly lagging behind Europe in innovation and cultural importance, even though America had most of the gold. And yet, the faceless throngs, which seemed to gather spontaneously around any notable event, feel optimistic.
If you know anyone who's been alive since 1927, think of all they've been through, of everything that has changed in the last 90 years.
And, next time the world feels like it's ending, look at how far we've come and how far we could still make it in the next 90 years.
I usually try to read novels as stand-alone pieces of art. I avoid reviews and critical theories about the novel’s meaning/importance/symbolism/whatever. Sometimes, I’m aware of the context, or I’ll do little research on the setting, but not much. It’s not until after I finish a work that I try to find out how others interpreted it. Certainly, there are pros and cons to this strategy, and others may disagree with it. But it usually helps me to form my own opinion first and then let that opinion be influenced later.
However, I felt like I missed a lot in One Hundred Years of Solitude by following this strategy. This feels like a book that it best read in a college course, where a professor has identified a bunch of related readings and can lead a conversation about what it all means. At minimum, maybe it should just have a lot of editor’s footnotes in it.
Because I don’t know what this all means. I understand that it’s a reflection of Latin America, but I also know that I’m missing a lot of the context here. Even down to the title—time, in the novel, is presented as cyclical and repetitive, so who/what is alone for one hundred years? The language and the metaphors are beautiful throughout, but I can’t see what they’re obscuring.
I have more research to do here, obviously. At some later point, I’ll probably read this book again and re-evaluate my reaction to it. But for now, it has left me intrigued.
When I picked up this book, I expected it to be a self-help style, “here’s what I did and maybe you can make some positive changes in your life too” kind of book. It’s not that. Let’s just get that out of the way first. This is much closer to a coming of age story. It’s the story of a man who lies without money and the life events that led him, almost inevitably, to such a decision.
Daniel Suelo lives (most of the time) in a cave. He scavenges for his food in dumpsters, takes advantage of free meals in town, or harvests from forgotten vegetable patches that have gone wild. He blogs from the public library and rides a bike, walks, or hitchhikes to get around. He has a lot of friends and followers who provide him with food and open offers of shelter for nothing more than an exchange of ideas with him. His life is extreme, but he believes fully in what he’s doing. A spiritual rejection of capitalism and consumerist culture, he lives his life closer to an Indian mystic or a Biblical prophet.
But The Man Who Quit Money is not an attempt to advocate for Suelo’s lifestyle or convince us all to quit our jobs and start eating expired packages of Chips Ahoy. Instead, it’s a picture of one life, so far. Suelo was raised in a small evangelical church in the American West in a loving family that never had much money or stability. Suelo bought fully into his family’s religion until he left home and started studying other religions and experiencing how Christian missionaries live throughout the world. Over many years, he became disillusioned with his ideal picture of a clean, pure life. He suffers from depression. He couldn’t seem to fit in with several of the jobs he tried. When he finally admitted that he’s gay, his family reacted poorly. He attempted suicide.
But author Mark Sundeen presents Suelo as one of the happiest, most at peace people you could ever hope to meet. For Suelo, checking out of the system of who he was “supposed” to be was his salvation. Still a Christian, Suelo blends in similar philosophies from many major religions and points out that all of them preach giving up material wealth in favor of spiritual awakening. He takes the “What would Jesus do?” idea very literally. Jesus wouldn’t commute two hours each way to work in an office that he hated jut to make a paycheck to buy a house and a car and insurance. Jesus would rely on God to provide for him (like the lilies of the field) and would spend his time helping others in whatever way he could. And that’s what Suelo tries to do every day.
I really appreciate that Sundeen doesn’t try to raise Suelo up to Prophet level, even though he takes him very seriously. He doesn’t try to say that these choices are right for everyone—not everyone can or should live like Suelo any more than everyone should live like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But he paints a fascinating picture of humanity, illustrating how our life experiences lead us to be the people we come through the choices we make. After reading this, I’m not ready to live the scavenging lifestyle of an ascetic philosopher, but I have more respect for those who do. And I love seeing someone so confidently turning his back on the whole broken system.
Anansi Boys made me laugh, learn things, and cry just a bit. I loved the dynamic characters and the way they interacted with each other. In retrospect, there are quite a lot of characters who come in and out of the story throughout, but I never struggled to keep up with who was who. Each one felt well rounded and acted with motivation. And the plot moved forward at a good pace, jumping between three main locations and justifying each jump. The magic mixes seamlessly with the non-magic world in a way that the reader could believe that this maybe just could happen, does happen every day.
I listened to Anansi Boys narrated by Lenny Henry, who was spectacular. I often forgot that there was one reader doing the different voices for the characters—each one was so distinct and so suited to the character. Before many details of the character were revealed (and Neil Gaiman does a wonderful job of doling out details of the characters throughout the narrative), I felt like I knew a bit about them just from the voice that Henry gave them.
A few years ago during a long, white winter, I read Moby-Dick and loved it. I loved the descriptions of the boats and the oceans and the day-to-day life of sailors who signed up for this incredibly demanding and dangerous lifestyle. They risked everything for the promise of adventure, travel, and the admiration of the folks back home, but almost no money. They chose to pursue and butcher by hand animals so large, so strong, and so intelligent that it’s almost unbelievable that they ever managed to capture a single one. And yet they did succeed, in the middle of the ocean with not much more than a small ship, a few row boats, some spears, and an awful lot of rope. They brought back enough whale oil to light most of a country.
Being fascinated with the mindset that would make a whole group of people choose such a lifestyle, it didn’t take much for me to pick up In the Heart of the Sea (with its fancy new movie-inspired cover). This thorough history covered everything I wanted to learn about—and some things that hadn’t occurred to me yet—but remained readable and engaging throughout. It opens with cannibalism and builds from there.
Philbrick’s mastery here is to shape these historical figures as well-rounded characters before relating the entire “plot.” You get to know each of them through his primary source research, so you empathize with the choices they make when faced with a variety of dangerous situations. He also establishes well the culture of the Nantucket from which they came, exploring the role of women, African-Americans, Quakers, greenhorns, children, and other social groups within the larger culture—a culture that revolves entirely around whaling. This background enables the reader to not only understand but also sympathize with decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, we know will be disastrous.
I also learned a lot more, even than from Moby-Dick, about the daily life upon a whale ship during this time. Especially fascinating was the excursions the crew made onto the Galapagos Islands to harvest sea birds and tortoises, which they would cook right in their shells. Sailors brought as many live tortoises as possible back to the ship (by strapping the tortoises onto their backs). The tortoises would live on the deck eating and drinking very little until the crew was ready to eat them. This kept the sailors in fresh, unspoiled meat without having to share nearly as many of their provisions as the live pigs on board demanded. Before this, my imaginings of a whale ship didn’t include sailors tripping over pigs and tortoises on deck, sliding side to side in rough waters.
The print book includes a lot of historical paintings and photos as well as technical drawings of ships and whaleboats, which supported the text. I’d recommend reading the paper copy. Also, yes, I saw the movie not long after finishing the book. Although I could watch Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy do just about anything for two hours, the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the book (and I don’t think that’s always the case). The characters are flattened and simplified to fit them into easier personas that don’t require as much backstory. The effects were, of course, impressive and thrilling, but it’s no substitute for the engaging, detailed and horrifying narrative presented in the book.
A trustworthy friend in college recommended Jesus’ Son to me. About 13 years later, I got around to reading it. After wading through the first half or so, I put it aside without a favorable impression. I thought maybe my moment for these stories had passed. Like Bukowski, maybe they seemed more interesting to undergrads. Stories of the gritty side of life that none of us had experienced. As I got older, I got a few glimpses of that grittier world, and I went running in the other direction.
A (different) friend noticed that I left two stars on GoodReads without comment and reached out. Amanda and I met one evening for dinner and talked about the book. What she made me realize is that I tend to want to place myself wholly in the shoes of the main character. Especially with a first-person narrator, I want to live and breathe this personality. I want to feel his choices and the effects of those choices. But that’s maybe not the best way to take Jesus’ Son.
I felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable reading this, which manifested in getting defensive against it. But Amanda helped me realize that this was a very safe way to view this world. I’m not actually there. I’m not actually too stoned to deal with a dangerous situation. I’m not driving a dead body around in my car without brakes. I’m not lost in the woods in a pick-up with some dying bunnies. I’m safe in my room/on the beach/at the coffee shop, just hearing a story about someone else’s life.
Once I could disconnect from the narrator in that way, I enjoyed these stories much more. I finished the book, and I could finally see the poetry in the language, in the images, and in the plot structures. I still don’t wish I knew this narrator in real life. But I appreciate that these stories gave me a glimpse into a world that’s safer viewed from the outside. And I’m grateful that Jesus’ Son and Amanda helped me learn how to read in a new way.
This audiobook wouldn't work as a print book; it's specifically audio. The author does a great job at explaining the meditations and then walking you through them with enough time to breathe through it and enjoy it.
After listening to this, I brought it into my Meditation Group at work. I worried that the idea of chakras would turn people off, but we talked about considering it like a body scan meditation, and everyone seemed to really like it.
After several voice-only meditations, which you can do seated or lying down, the author introduces you to a standing/walking meditation (we just walked in place). She starts with a steady and consistent drum beat that's easy to step to. Then she adds a 4-count breath in and a 4-count breath out. And there's something wonderful that happens when a group of people is all moving and breathing as one. When you've had time to get comfortable with that, she walks you through all the chakras, up and down, focusing differently with each pass. By the end, the energy level is high and joyful. I think everyone in the room felt like we had experienced something wonderful together.
After that, there's another drum piece, but without words, so you can sit or lie down again and enjoy a more personal practice. It's a nice sort of "cool down" after the high-energy standing meditation.
If you're new to meditation, I recommend trying this CD. Take maybe 30 minutes at a time, and over three sessions you can get the whole disc. Or spend longer, enjoy it from beginning to end. I really like the way she explains things to make it feel less foreign, less "weird," less scary.
There is so much to say about not only Part 2 but also about the entire story of Don Quixote, that I'll never fit it into one blog post. I'll try to limit this one to my thoughts on Part 2--the way Cervantes tried to limit himself from digressing into entire other novels after the first book--and instead include other thoughts in later posts.
The short version is: Part 2 is a significantly better read than Part 1, but you really have to read Part 1 to understand Part 2.
Part 2 starts with all those formalities that Part 1 lacked. The dedications in particular. And here Cervantes introduces us to an incident that evolves into a bit of an obsession throughout the work. After Part 1 became a success, someone else wrote a sequel without Cervantes's permission. He deemed it quite inferior, obviously, both in writing style and character development. The irony, of course, is that we're still reading Cervantes's Don Quixote 400 years later, and we would never even remember this counterfeit if he didn't harp on it so much.
In this world of Part 2, we encounter our Knight of the Rueful Countenance (later to be known as the Knight of the Lions) still in bed recovering from his second sally, just a month or so before. And somehow in this time, half of Europe has read the true history of Don Quixote (the one by Cide Hamete Benegeli, of course, the historian Cervantes claims to be translating through both parts) and is completely enamored with the protagonist and his squire. They discuss the short-comings of the book--specifically the crazy novel-within-a-novel part I complained about earlier and a plotting mistake--and it's funny to hear that the complaints of readers 400 years ago are so similar to today's.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza decide to proceed on a third sally, and they sneak out of the house in order to do so. Since I promised to keep this brief, I won't recount their adventures here. The important difference between this and the first and second sallies is that they actually win sometimes. The reader cheers for them because not every adventure ends in a spectacular beating or a sheep slaughter. Not all (most) of their wins are objectively fair successes, but they think they're winning, and you can't help but want it for them. A lot of people play a lot of tricks on them throughout, but many of the tricks are harmless except that they increase the delusion of Don Quixote and Sancho.
We love them for their delusions. When Sancho occasionally contemplates walking away, the reader wishes him to stay. As mean as some of the tricks are, we are the trick-players. We want them to believe, maybe because we want to live in a world where their beliefs are relevant.
And that's the magic of Part 2. Despite all the cultural differences between early 17th century Spain and 21st century America, we can still relate to the emotions behind the characters and their stories. Maybe this is what earns Don Quixote the title of "the first modern novel," I'm not sure. But it feels modern.
In this book of essays, Ann Patchett discusses her writing career, her relationships, and her life’s lessons. It’s probably very difficult to put together this many advice and memoir essays without coming off as self-righteous at least part of the time. That said, the lessons she imparts are worth learning.
The book opens with essays about Patchett’s writing career: how she got where she is today and what that place actually looks like. This was my favorite part of the book, because the essays focused on working hard, trying hard, and having a lot of luck. You only get better at writing by doing it, something I need to be reminded of when I get distracted by other “obligations” in my life. I was inspired by how she built stories in her head while waiting tables and how she came up with a million ideas for magazine articles, just hoping that something would stick. In her essay about book tours, she brought up a lot of points I hadn’t considered, since I haven’t had the privilege to do that (yet).
The personal memoir essays were also interesting and could be very touching. That said, Patchett’s life comes off as some sort of Writer Fantasy World that’s hard not to envy. By coincidence, I was reading Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half (book) at the same time, and that served as a much-needed contrast. It was like switching between Lesley Knope and Liz Lemon; you sort of need one to balance out the other. So maybe my dog, as much as I love him, will never be the perfect specimen of dog that Patchett’s Rose was. He’s a lot closer to Brosh’s Simple Dog, actually, which made me laugh. And maybe I’m an aspiring writer who hasn’t worked and tried hard enough to get a paid fellowship to write my first novel. At least I got off the couch and showered today, and that’s pretty alright.
I should also add that this is the only writing of Patchett’s I’ve (knowingly) read. I’m not sure why that would matter, especially considering that the writing-advice essays were my favorites, but from skimming through other reviews, it seems to matter a lot. I picked up this book because of the “Fresh Air” interview, and then I thought it was going to be a full memoir, not essays. As it turns out, I probably liked this format better.
I recommend This is the Story of a Happy Marriage for writers and for die-hard Patchett fans. But keep in mind that for every Lesley Knope, there’s a Liz Lemon out there setting the bar at a reasonable standard for the rest of us.
Read my reviews on