2016

  • Ishmael

    Daniel Quinn

    Image of Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

    While technically fiction, this novel is almost entirely a conversation between a man and the gorilla Ishmael (who communicates telepathically), and it pretty much reads like a lecture on philosophies of ecology. The ideas are interesting, focused on Ishmael’s division of humans into two groups he calls Takers and Leavers — the Takers being those who followed the Agricultural Revolution through the Industrial Revolution to today’s world of possibly irreversible climate change.

    Many critics of this book see Ishmael’s glorification of the Leavers, represented by more primitive, tribal cultures, as unrealistic and even inaccurate. The argument, for example, that they have always lived in balance with their environment, never depleting resources unlike their Taker counterparts, turns out to be easily refuted....more

  • Hope in the Dark

    Rebecca Solnit

    Image of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

    Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, a alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what is may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

    ...more
  • The Selfishness of Others

    Kristin Dombek

    Image of The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism

    My friend Athena wrote a review of this essay on “the fear of narcissism” that suggested the writing fell a bit flat to her at the end. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I wound up feeling almost exactly the same way. A brief history of clinical and cultural understandings of narcissism, with sections focused around concepts like The Bad Boyfriend, The Millennial, The Murderer; the turning point is The Artist, where the focus shifts to Dombek’s self-reflection. As Athena said, it was perhaps intended as “some kind of experimental practice of writing as a selfish/other-centric dialectic,” but I was disappointed that everything built up to be so personal, self-centered. But it’s appropriate within the essay’s lens of...more

  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers

    Max Porter

    Image of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel

    After the sudden death of a wife and mother, a father and two sons struggle in their mourning. To their rescue comes an oversized Crow, apparently a manifestation of Ted Hughes’s poetic creation, acting as a kind of counselor. (The dad is a Hughes scholar; the author Max Porter is a casual scholar himself.) The book rotates between the voices of the Dad, Crow, and Boys, the Crow parts often devolving into cryptic crow word play. The title is also a play on poetry, swapping Emily Dickinson’s hope for grief. (If there’s a meaningful connection between Emily Dickinson and Ted Hughes, I seem to have missed it.)

    As a portrait of the anguish of loss, Porter captures the all-consuming nature...more

  • Another Brooklyn

    Jacqueline Woodson

    Image of Another Brooklyn: A Novel

    I watched my brother watch the world, his sharp, too-serious brow furrowing down in both angst and wonder. Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.

    Beautiful, poetic novel built around memories of growing up in Bushwick in the 1970s. August returns to NYC as an adult, and a chance meeting on the subway brings back her adolescent years when she first arrived with her father and brother from Tennessee. “This is memory,” she intones repeatedly as she remembers their father being too nervous to let them out on their own, so they viewed their neighborhood held captive through the...more

  • The Underground Railroad

    Colson Whitehead

    Image of The Underground Railroad (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel

    While Colson Whitehead’s novel is a fictional account of slavery that bends historical details, the cruelties and heartbreak are undeniably accurate. Cora is the center of the story, a woman who is an outcast in her plantation life, her mother having left her behind to escape North. Her own chance to take off comes in the form of Caesar, who sees her as a good luck charm because of her mother’s successful escape, and together they flee, managing to make it a station of the Underground Railroad.

    Whitehead imagines the railroad as tracks literally tunneling through the earth, complete with subterranean locomotives and boxcars. Each train journey serves to jump the narrative in some way — further in time but also...more

  • Are You My Mother?

    Alison Bechdel

    Image of Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

    Reviews were so mixed on this graphic novel that I had decided not to read it, until recently when I started reading a borrowed copy and couldn’t put it down. A follow-up to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which focused on her relationship with her father, this one turns to her relationship with her mother. And several of her therapists. Most people I know who didn’t like this book especially did not enjoy the pages of therapy sessions drawn into the story, but for me those parts fit in cleanly to the rest of the narrative.

    In a similar way to Fun Home, Bechdel excerpts other texts frequently in this story, including psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, and Alice...more

  • The Book Thief

    Markus Zusak

    Image of The Book Thief

    Set during WWII in Germany, The Book Thief starts by following Liesel Meminger traveling with her mother and brother traveling by train to Munich. Her mother is a communist and has found a foster home for them to protection as political tensions rise under the Nazis. Along the way her brother dies, and Liesel crosses paths for the first time with the novel’s narrator, Death. At her brother’s funeral, she also steals her first book: a manual on grave digging, which she is unable to read. The use of Death as a near-omniscient narrator has the potential to come off as contrived, but this empathetic version of Death sets a softened tone for the various horrors to come. And...more

  • L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems

    Elisa Gabbert

    Image of L'Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems

    I loved Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable, and this new book has similar cadences, even though these are true poems rather than lyric aphorisms. The Judy of the title is a character in Wallace Shawn’s play “The Designated Mourner,” which is set “in an unnamed, fictitious country ruled over by an increasingly fascist oligarchy” and involves the dissolution of Judy’s marriage with Jack. Aaron Angello’s introduction describes how he met Gabbert and her partner, the novelist John Cotter, and how the three of them came to rehearse and perform this play over about a year, having long discussions about the work and its characters. After their last performance, Gabbert began writing poems from the perspective of Judy, imagining stories...more

  • Airless Spaces

    Shulamith Firestone

    Image of Airless Spaces

    Passable, Not Presentable
    She remembered the time before she had gotten sick. When it was a challenge to dress, how good it felt to look just right and be certain of one’s appearance. Then came losing her looks in the hospital, and the ghastly difference it made in the way she was received; the way people turned away from her after one glance in the street. And the slow climb back, trying to disguise the stiffness in her gait, and the drooling moronic look on her face that came from the medication. Perhaps this was why the mentally disabled always seemed so bland-looking as a group: they had to strive to look orginary, the “pass.” That little bit of

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