…and the occasional film.
book reviews are also posted on goodreads.com (or will be soon)
Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
Over the years, in the faces of black men I’ve shared neighborhoods with, I’ve seen the imprint of how they’d been treated. In the professional suites where I’ve worked it was more tightly masked but it was there. A weariness and wariness. But I never had a clear sense of the weight, depth, or distance of the gulf between their lives and mine until I read this book, which is raw at the heart and music on the page. Real music, no equalizers or pitch-correction software required.
Stand-out passages: her family tree, with men who’ve died too soon on nearly every limb; a moment in high school at a mansion not far from her own home, when Ward is talking to the woman of the house while watching her mother clean that house; getting to see and to know each of the boys she writes about, as they became young men but were denied their final steps into adulthood; the portraits of her parents, woven through the book, the tensions and ties that held them together and kept them apart.
I came away with a picture of life as a series of walls, like a maze where you start at the bottom and work your way up. The very first stage of it is your family, then your neighborhood, your community, schools, churches, sports, the city you live in, day jobs, volunteer work, the state, the frontier-to-frontier government, the rest of the planet. Every wall has doors in it. Some open easily. Some you have to wrestle with. Some you have to outsmart. Some are flat-out slammed shut, with glee, the instant enough of your skin color or gender are apparent.
And if every wall you encountered only held that last kind of door? How would you rise? How would you define your place in the world then?
It’s a great book, read it!
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
Wohlleben’s book is a blend of recent science, the author’s own experience working with trees, and anthropomorphizing that even made me blink (speaking as someone who refers to dogs, cats and other animals as he or she. I mean, really, what’s up with referring to them as ‘it’ like they were lawn chairs?)
Mr. Wohlleben once worked for the forestry commission in Germany, where he appraised trees for their value as wood. As he puts it in the book, “If you read the literature, you quickly get the impression that the well-being of the forest is only of interest insofar as it is necessary for optimizing the lumber industry. …my appreciation of trees was also restricted to this narrow point of view.”
When he began organizing survival training and log cabin tours, the people who signed up taught him to see trees differently. They loved the ones that were gnarled or shaped differently, and by drawing Wohlleben’s attention to them they reawakened his broader love of nature, including trees that would not make good lumber.
In short easy to follow chapters he reveals the layers of necessary functions trees provide to the environment and to each other. Their importance, as living participants in our survival, has taken a back seat to our interest in their function as lumber. After too long, and perhaps too late, we are learning what an error that has been.
If, like me, you haven’t been keeping up with scientific literature about trees, this book is a good, accessible introduction. The note section contains references to papers and other books, and acts as a useful guide to further reading.
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy
These stories do not disappoint. Usually in a collection of short pieces there is a sort of bell curve of reactions: some you love, several you like, some you aren’t so crazy about. At the end of all but one of these stories I felt as though I’d read the best one in the collection. Everything flowed from start to finish, even those with a lot of plot going on. The characters felt all the more fully-realized, rather than “caricaturized,” by their conflicting impulses. Every ending, in the way that it landed or came together, left me feeling the whole ride of the story in the logic of its closing passage.
One way to think of it is these are tales of longings and compulsions—the kind we may all have, singing in our blood alongside the best of our intentions, disturbing the peace of our otherwise well-ordered or at least habitable lives. Except these characters either act on them or, by omission in at least one case, allow the impulses of others to play out.
Visit Maile Meloy’s site here.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Caught in the Crossfire, by Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford
There aren’t many biographies of Stevie Ray Vaughan. And if you wish he was still here, still writing and playing, still creating new chapters in his life―in his own words―books don’t quite fill those shoes. But there are some worthwhile titles out there, thanks to the people who put in the time and effort to create them.
Caught in the Crossfire has a lot of information, and a useful Notes section that lists articles and other books. One interesting thing is that the chapters about early Texas days contain nearly as much information about his brother Jimmie Vaughan as about SRV himself.
We get a sense of the evolution that led to Double Trouble, the long hours, broke days, and hard work. And then there was that big, bright step onto the stage at Montreux, where other musicians at the festival sat up and paid attention when they heard what Stevie Ray could do with that Stratocaster. The road ahead wasn’t always smooth but included international recognition and touring, gold records, and playing alongside the rest of the best around. Interspersed into this trajectory the book includes information about his marriage to Lenny, his relationship with Janna Lapidus, and not enough (my opinion) about his post-Charter years.
The authors bring their journalism background to the writing, and there are some key moments here that I hadn’t read elsewhere. On the other hand, the book sometimes feels a little like something more media-oriented than a biography. It leans, as the news tends to do, toward the catchy sort of highlights that grab attention but don’t necessarily give a sense of the whole person or story. As I read it, it was hard to shake the feeling that the authors were focused on the “glitter and doom” (to borrow from Tom Waits) more than the essence and soul.
For me at least, that focus felt claustrophobic. SRV’s soul-stirring guitar playing didn’t rise from shallow waters, and he was stratospherically accomplished, so there’s quite a range to work with there. Yes there are big names, yes there was addiction and a meteoric ride, but it’s the person at the core of it all who matters most.
So, bottom-line, Caught in the Crossfire is worth reading. But don’t just read this book, go to the source. Listen to or read Stevie Ray Vaughan’s interviews and soak up his music.
Visit the book’s goodreads page here
The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter
Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction
The Feast of Love is not a new title, but it contains a message that bears repeating and remembering: whoever we are and whoever we love, we are creating a love story to celebrate and commemorate just as much as those recorded in text, film, or music.
There is so much to savor in this book. The writing is accessible, perceptive, and smart, and there are many passages worth tagging and returning to for a second read.
The book begins with its narrator waking up in the middle of the night. For a while he’s suspended in that neither-here-nor-there state that may be the purest form of awareness, that moment before we’ve assembled our personalities for daylight—or at least for waking life. He gets dressed, leaves the house, walks through the night, and begins his excursion though other people’s stories of love and relationships.
He starts by talking with Bradley, a coffee shop owner and painter of inscrutable pictures. Bradley’s wife has left him, and he’s rented a house of his own where he finds the perfect spot for each of his possessions, but it isn’t clear where he belongs.
Next, the narrator interviews Bradley’s former wife, Katherine. Her observations about him, and about a relationship where the partners don’t seem to really connect, go a long way toward illustrating why she left. One day during a women’s softball game, Katherine hits what she thinks is a solid line drive, and it ends up in the glove of the shortstop. This catch is so graceful and athletic it takes Katherine’s breath away. Who cares that her hit was caught? She falls in love with the short stop, Jenny.
Chloe and Oscar are two young employees at Bradley’s coffee shop. They house sit for him, look to him for the occasional bit of advice, and have things to teach him as well. For this reader, they are the electric heart of the book. Chloe in particular is indelible, and she carries the narrative to its conclusion with a piercing illustration of her love for Oscar.
One night, Bradley shows his paintings to his neighbors Esther and Harry Ginsberg. They find all but one to be mystifying and forgettable. The painting that takes their breath and queasy disinterest away depicts a table set with light as much as with food.
As we read through the book and get to know all of its inhabitants, it becomes a sort of Rosetta stone of nearly everything we pass through in the course of our relationships. The quests, contentments, and muddlings of the characters, and the observations they make about themselves and each other, shed light on us all.
Visit Charles Baxter’s site here
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
My first reaction after seeing it: don’t miss it.
Second reaction: try to see it in a theater on a big screen.
This is a story set in the limitless pre-industrial landscapes of a much younger United States, and at a time when people were guided by the information of their senses and their collective experience. Seen at home on a computer, or even a large HD TV screen, you might not get the same sense of how small human culture once was in comparison to the land that both sheltered and tested us. The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, lets us feel as though we can taste and smell the snow, the clear river water, the wind through the forests and prairies.
The film opens onto a vista of trees that grow straight up out of mirror-clear water. The trees and water are all we can see and go on as far as we can see, until the tip of a rifle appears. Soon nearly all of the rifle comes into view, a sleek dark intrusion into the surrounding environment. Finally we see two men moving cautiously through the water: Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). It’s an appropriate beginning to a story that hinges on family and the bonds that drive its characters toward survival in a world that is both luminous and unforgiving.
While Glass and Hawk sight a moose, elsewhere and on drier land, members of the fur trapping expedition they are attached to assess the value of their accumulated pelts. The men are tired and grimy, the skinned bodies of animals are laid out at the center of the campsite. Here we meet the trappers’ captain, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who is also a doctor’s son and has some of his father’s medical skills, and trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)who personifies the curdling me-before-all mentality and the deceit that so often goes with it. He also contributes one very curious campfire tale to the story.
The trappers are surprised by Indians (Arikara in the novel about Hugh Glass) whose presence is announced by a single arrow that kills one of the trappers. They soon fill the screen with galloping horses, chaos, and laser-sharp bow and arrow skills.
Why? They are looking for the daughter of one of their own and for revenge against the white men who took her. They also take pelts to trade with the French for rifles and horses so they can continue their search.
From this opening scene we plunge into the depths and hollows of the primary characters, witness a terrifying bear attack (who also appears motivated by protecting her young), meals of raw fish and bison that I confess made me grateful for butchers and grocery stores, and move through a few of the cultures of that era and place: Anglo-American, Pawnee and Arikara Indian, French.
The cinematography is exquisite. The acting is excellent. DiCaprio breathes relentless grit into Glass’s bleak passage back to life and also lets us feel his sense of peace at journey’s end. Hardy, who is so good you may not even realize how often you’ve seen him, may have amped his character up a bit too much but is nonetheless, as always, convincing.
The film runs for about two and a half hours but didn’t seem long to me until I left the theater and saw what time it was. There is such detailed richness throughout, in the skills we learn or at least witness from Glass and a Pawnee Indian who helps him back to health, in the raw sovereignty of the physical environment, the equally potent strength of Glass’s love for his son and wife, and in the endurance she helps him to maintain through her spirit-visits and his memories of her.
My impression is that Iñárritu sees this world, and wants to present it to us, as a whole. He doesn’t want to pare it or his story down into the formulaic arcs and beats that many believe are essential to film story telling. In this I have to say I agree with him and not the critics who would trim scenes and shorten the running time. I am tired of the pace, winking cleverness, and whiplash story-telling that Hollywood has perfected. Iñárritu does not similarly let entire swathes of the story escape our attention.
A few things, but very few, did pull me out of the film. At one point the soundtrack felt too religiously resonant when I wanted to be allowed to absorb the visual power of a landscape in peace. The cantina scene was interesting but didn’t seem to have a link to anything else and felt a bit plunked into the rest of the story.
One curious thing is a sign Glass sees (I don’t want to give away where or how) during his journey through the wilderness: on est tous les sauvages. We are all savages. It isn’t translated for the audience but perhaps it’s one of the film’s messages.