Friday, June 23, 2017

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

My Year in Books, Part 2

It's somewhat telling that the last blog post I made was for the first half of the year's reading.  I don't know if it's the gradual decline of blogs in the face of other social media, my increased parental holdings, or just the dumpster fire that is 2016, but this blog has been pretty neglected. I think it's time to re-imagine what I want to do with it.

Before we get that far, though, I have a second half-year of books to attend to. As usual, a tip of the hat to the good folks over at Are There Any More Cookies and A Fiercer Delight and A Fiercer Discontent, from whose book review motif  I continuously steal mercilessly draw inspiration. 

I read/listened to a personally-large number of books this latter part of the year (31, for a yearly total of 48, or 4 a month). Sadly, I mostly engaged in a steadfast avoidance of  the Serious Literature that has piled up on my nightstand (Sorry Proulx, Faulkner, and Murakami...I'll get to you yet...) and opted for lighter fare. I burned out on news during my commute pretty early in the election cycle, so my audiobook quotient is much higher than usual. I started reading a dozen more books, but either ran out of time or wasn't in the right place to finish them.

To aid in a brief skim of this post (and in preparation for the upcoming TL;DR era of a Trump presidency) I have added one line summary titles for each book that get to its essence. 


"Jesus Christ: Super Stark."

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan
Azlan is at best a pop historian. This is not a universally accepted portrayal. There are historical inaccuracies in this book about historical inaccuracies about our perception of Jesus. I recognize all these things (and I also recognize that at least some of the criticism of Aslan's scholarship is from people whose scholarship errs in the other direction). All that being said, I found this book about separating the mythological Jesus from the historical Jesus an interesting perspective. Aslan has a decent narrative, even with his tendency to give too much credence to suggestions about the gaps in the historical record. I can take or leave a lot of the details, but what was most enlightening for me was the context the book provides. Even while critics quibble over the minutae, Zealot does a competent job of widening the lens on the Jesus story. Getting a better flavor of the political and social context of the time puts the main Jesus narrative (whether one subscribes to it or not) in a different light. What ultimately made this particular messiah candidate (there was more competition than I realized) the one that history remembers is a matter of debate, but one worth talking about. I won't say I really enjoyed it, but it was worth the read. It's a stark portrayal, sometimes errant, but an informative look at the time and place if not the man. 


"Amy Poehler being intermittently funny about Amy Poehler"

Yes Please – Amy Poehler
This was a last minute "I need an audiobook for a 3 hour car ride" selection. Poehler mixes her personal story (She did a lot of improv before SNL/Parks and Rec. There, I just saved you several hours) with some fragmented bits of philosophy. There are some funny bits, but a lot of it just feels like small talk, disjointed and noncommittal. To its credit, there's no way one can hope that a book by a comedic actor will be as good as the writing for their character. But if I'm being honest, I was hoping this would be more "Leslie Knope" and less "obscure early SNL skit character". It felt more like a victory lap than a cohesive book.


"Like a 'Sexy Buccaneer' Halloween costume; it's all about pirate booty"

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
I never read Treasure Island as a kid. So I read it. There's not a lot of nuance here, it's just a straight-ahead boy's adventure story. It was interesting to see the birth of the literary pirate tradition. There are some books written for children which transcend their genre and remain relevant throughout the ages. This is probably not one of them. 


"Not even the Battle of El Alamein was this dry and British..."

H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald
Hawk revolves in an intensely close orbit around a woman's trials and tribulations in raising a Gyrfalcon for falconry after a recent death in the family. The real heart of the book, though, is an equally brutal and subtle take on loss and recovery. It's unapologetically English, understated and fussy at times, but it cuts to the bone unexpectedly in its portrayal of the claustrophobic, fractious obsession of putting order to dissaray, and losing one's self in a pursuit as a coping mechanism. Under the rules and order and methodology of the character's falconry lurks the barely contained, dark, messy cacophany of the human heart. MacDonald brings out that interplay masterfully.  


"Aziz Ansari, MSW"

Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
Ansari makes a surpringly earnest, honest, and emotionally relevant look at romance in the new digital era. There's humor, but I'm surprised how much of this book is real, social science-lite, inquiry and evaluation. This is not intended primarily as a comedic work, but its infused with a humor that's far more emotionally honest than Poehler's improv shtick. I love that this really feels like a sincere effort by Ansari to wrap his arms around a topic. If you liked "Master of None", which you should, you'll dig this book. If anything, I feel like it had room to grow. While none of the insights are truly earth-shattering, they do have a sense of human realness that's absent in more scholarly works.


"Horror (of real life) stories"

Werewolves in their Youth – Michael Chabon
Chabon is unquestionably a master of character, dialogue, and sense of place. While I enjoyed this collection of short stories about dissolution of relationships and misanthropy, there were few that were ultimately memorable. There were some passages that were outstanding, and what felt like the kernels of great stories, all tied together with his amazing style, but it didn't really gel together as something I'll take much away from other than the enjoyment of his style. I still prefer the freedom to stretch his story-telling legs that longer works afford him (Pittsburgh, notwithstanding).


"Wait, Alexander Hamilton's not Latino?".

1776 – David McCullough
I admit it, I read this mostly because Chernow's Hamilton wasn't available at the library. As much as 1776 is often held up as the exemplary popular work on the early Revolution, it really came off as more of a primer than a comprehensive work. It's well written and readable, and it's a decent balance of an honest look at the revolution in 1776 that doesn't devolve into revisionism. It feels a little incomplete, like a tasting of a larger work. In fairness, the explosion of Revolutionary War pop history franchises (Turn, Hamilton, etc) means 1776 has to cut through more noise than it once did. 


"Cannons! Spies! Dialogue! Romance! More Dialogue! More Cannons!"

The Aubrey/Maturin Novels – Patrick O'Brian
Remember that time Russel Crowe made that movie about sailing ships, and it was halfway decent even though it has a ridiculously long name? Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World  was based on a beloved series of novels about British naval ships in the Napoleonic wars. The 20+ novels can be thought of as one 5000 page epic (or even romans-flueve) charting the evolving friendship and adventures of a naval captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/intelligence officer (Maturin). I expected these to just be light historical fare, but they were engaging and literary in their own right. It's like Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad had a baby and then gave it some cannons.

O'Brian focuses far more on dialogue and intrigue than sea battles, but the sea battles alone are worth the price of admission. I was just thinking recently that I tend to enjoy when authors don't spend a lot of time on exposition...not explaining every technology and acronym and plot device, just turning on the viewer to their world and letting us pick things up in context. O'Brian does that masterfully, giving readers no quarter in use of naval terminology and period politics, but in a way that ends up being incredibly satisfying. You don't need to know that a fully-rigged ship has at least a square-rigged fore, main, and mizzen mast to enjoy the series. The pacing of both the action and quiet moments is consistently well-timed.

I ended up reading/listening to 19 of the 21 novels in the series over the course of the last 6 months. The inestimable Robert Hardy's stellar narration on the audiobooks added a considerable amount to my enjoyment. I'm honestly sad that there won't be any more of these books (O'Brian died mid-book). When I found out I'm pretty sure I remember clenching my fists at the havens and yelling "NOOO WHY COULDN'T YOU HAVE TAKEN GEORGE RR MARTIN INSTEAD???".


"Cowboy D&D"

The Gunslinger – Steven King
Confession: I don't read a lot of Steven King. Don't get me wrong, he has a wonderfully dark imagination. I just don't like his writing much, and I think he's been phoning it in for years now. And I say this as someone who will never, ever, have a fraction of his ability. I admire his work, I just don't enjoy it much. I am probably one of the few who will defend Kubrick for making a masterpiece out of The Shining, as opposed to the great-idea-but-clumsy-execution of King's original novel. In that vein, I never gave King's magnum opus Dark Tower series about a cowboy flavored post-apocalyptic fantasy world much thought when it was originally being published. However, I ran across the graphic novel adaptation of his work with art by Jae Lee and others. I was immediately hooked on the master-class in world building that King teaches through this creation. I finally picked up a copy of the first novel, The Gunslinger,  and was pleasantly surprised. It's a little hokey in places, but aligns well with my preference toward not giving your reader too much to go on. King drops you into a fully-realized world and gradually flashbacks you pieces of context. I started on the 2nd and 3rd book, and wasn't as impressed, but will probably getting around to reading the whole series at some point. The writing is better than similar  series of long books with lots of characters (lookin' at you, George RR Martin). I guess I'll have to re-evaluate my unearned disdain for King.


"Post-apocalyptic hippies and the women who love them"

Year of the Flood – Margret Atwood
So, it's hard to start a trilogy on book 2 (I mistakenly thought this book was the first in its series). Year mostly tells post-apocalyptic survival stories from several characters' viewpoints, who connect through a group of end time hippy cultists. I have not read anything by Atwood before, and to be honest, wasn't overly impressed by Flood. The writing is ok, but not compelling in and of itself (my wife assures me the first and third books of this  series are better.) The story seems like it touches on some interesting elements, and is fairly brutal with its main characters and adroit in its prodding at cult mentality, but it feels like a side narrative to a more interesting story. I haven't decided if I'll read the whole series. It didn't help that I listened to this on audiobook, and they kept cutting to some weird folk rock songs every other chapter. 


"Neil Gaiman reading Neil Gaiman stories. Shut up and take my money."

Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is an incomparable story-teller. That doesn't mean he has the best writing style (it's still usually pretty good), or that he achieves masterworks of literature for the ages, but he excels at weaving the primordial fabric of stories from pure imagination. This collection of short stories drifts from horror to whimsy to humor (the lighter side of the Cthulhu mythos) and even once into some odd erotic bits, but it all feels very complete.  More importantly, the collection works as a collection. Hearing it in his own voice on the audiobook was frosting on the cake ( the good kind of frosting, not the sort that leaves fluorescent blue all over your tongue and tastes like over-sweet chemicals.)

"Better than the movie. Also, see above re: shutting up and taking my money."

Stardust – Neil Gaiman
Another Gaiman audiobook for a book I've never read, even though I saw the (admittedly quite well adapted) movie. Having Gaiman as the reader adds an inordinate amount to the feel and pacing of the book. It falls somewhere between the great story but so-so writing of American Gods, and the achievement of writing brilliance and pretty good story of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. As with all Gaiman's books, the introduction is actually worth reading and gives a lot of context for this grown-up fairy tale.  


"David Sedaris back when he was funny. ish."

Holidays on Ice – David Sedaris
I don't like David Sedaris as much as I'm supposed to like him. There, I've said it. At his best, he has a bitter and emotionally honest humor. At his worst, the darkness greatly overbalances the humor. On the average, he feels a lot like a second class New Yorker cartoon a lot of the time. This late 90's collection of holiday pieces has some of his best/most well known (Santaland Diaries) and it's a nice counterpoint to the plastic-fantastic wave of Christmas schlock that's upon us. That being said, there is some remarkably dark stuff in here. I listened to this as an audiobook read by Sedaris...I'm still on the fence as to whether that improves or hinders his work. 


"They printed out the website."

Atlas Obscura – Foer, et al. 
Atlas Obscura is one of my favorite websites. It contains write-ups of odd places, natural phenomena, odd histories, etc. of the world. When they came out with a book, I was skeptical. It promised to be a curated selection of writings on the website, but it feels like they just grouped them by location and called it a day. The book lacks much of the accompanying pictures and media of the website. They attempt to duplicate the feature linking readers to similar entries by providing small summaries, but it ends up being a lot of redundancies and clumsiness. Unlike collections from other sites (Onion, for example), the book format just doesn't seem to work for Atlas Obscura. I'd rather just read it on the interactive, searchable, brilliant website. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

My Half-Year in Books (January-June 2016)

In my fine tradition of intermixed sloth and manic over-reading, I am mentally stumbling into the end of June and another half-year book review. Still trying to read more than the average American, but as usual, that's not a high bar. Since I'm fairly sure reading in general will be outlawed under President Trump, I am doing my best to get in as many books as I can. My last and best hope is that the good folks over at Are There Any More Cookies and A Fiercer Delight and A Fiercer Discontent survive the conflagration to come. I expect there will be a great need for the well-read to translate weightier works into Trumpish, like this:

In the meantime, here are a few books that you, depending on your political leanings, might also want to read/burn before the coming apocalypse/glorious ascent. 

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s dense, organic writing may not completely retain all of its nuance and cultural touchpoints in its translation to English, but it is so masterful it doesn’t matter. This novel is a wonderful example of Murakami’s skill at writing human emotional interplay in all its messy and un-romanticized glory. The story meanders through years of uncertain love and tragedy between several Japanese college students, but is consistently intimate and in the moment. It is not as dryly poetic as Ishiguro or Barnes, into whose general sphere of subject this work falls, but it trumps each in the realness of the characters and interactions.  

The Golden Compass – Phillip Pullman
I had never read this “humanist’s Narnia”, and had heard flagrantly flattering and excoriating accounts (often dependant on the reviewer’s personal faiths). The general premise of the story about alternate realities revolves around a fight to free a population from the hegemony of a big-c Church allegory. The symbolism is pretty in-your-face, and the main character is often less then sympathetic, but the steampunk-before-steampunk world building is fairly admirable, with sentient armor-building polar bear societies, animalistic totems, etc. I don’t really have a dog(ma) in this fight, so I was able to get past the sometimes heavy-handed critique of religion’s impact on the individual and enjoy what was a decently written children’s adventure story (much like Narnia).

The Big Seven – Jim Harrison
I’ve long been a fan of Harrison’s work, and this story is comfortably ensconced in the themes of some of his other novels. The story is a semi-sequel to a previous novel I haven’t read, but was fine as a stand-alone. It recounts a man reconstructing himself physically and figuratively from injury and divorce, trying to feel his way through new ways of interacting with his wife and daughter after divorce. And then Harrison brings in some Justified-style backwoods crime elements and ruminations on sin. It’s a chopped salad mix of elements, which makes Harrison’s simple but deft connections all the more impressive.

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of the writers whose work I will always read, no questions asked. His writing meanders from pulpy to literary, and he’s had some works that just didn’t …work, but at the end of the day, he’s a master storyteller who dwells at the ragged edges of reality and mythology. This collection of short stories varies greatly between densely rich world building and fan fiction (no, really, he does a fan fic tribute to Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes). His ability to build completely fleshed out worlds in small pieces makes even the less powerful pieces worth a read.

The Subtle Knife – Phillip Pullman
A continuation of the Golden Compass (His Dark Materials) work. Not much differentiation from the first.

The Amber Spyglass – Phillip Pullman
The final book in the trilogy (and yes, I feel literary guilt at reading a YA trilogy given the sheer volume and poor average quality of the works on the market today.) The ending is generally satisfying, though it loses steam a bit. In reviewing the book on its merits, I can confidently say “this is a book I read.” That’s about it.

The Magician's Land – Lev Grossman
Grossman’s wry and witty stew of Narnia/Potter satire and original story once again produces something far greater than the sum of its parts. The final novel in the trilogy (oh God, another trilogy) is satisfying and feels like a more confidant and richer work than its preceding novels. Having gotten past the homage/skewering of Narnia and Potter elements, the story finally realizes its full potential and Grossman’s focus becomes more focused, subtle, and original. I really liked the first installments in this series about a realistic version of the secret wizards/secret land archetype, in which the characters are not idealized and noble, but faulty and human. The final novel feels more like an extended denouement from the climax of the previous novel, even with its large set-piece battles. Getting into the winding down of world-building seems to have given Grossman some more room to flesh out his characters and dig into the hurt. Other world-builders could take a lesson here. Cough-George RR Martin-Cough.

After Dark – Haruki Murakami
This novel was an interesting counterpoint to Norwegian Wood, taking a darker, more abstract approach. The blurring of the lines between dream and reality is handled both subtly and with jarring impact. The story of Japanese students weaving through a night world of crime and semi-supernatural elements and down-to-earth urban blight sounds like bad sci-fi, but in reality is only the vehicle for Murakami’s literary exploration of connections between people, and society, and alienation thereof. It has a weird beauty to it.

Thunderstruck – Erik Larson
Larson is sometimes a less-then-able historical storyteller, especially when it comes to pacing and consistency. His historical works (Devil in the White City) usually do well (but not always, Garden of Beasts)  in providing a sense of a place and time beyond names and dates. Thunderstruck is almost a carbon-copy of the framework of Devil in the White City’s juxtaposition of a big historic event, with a small but revealing counter-story taking place at the same time. Unfortunately for this book, neither the large saga of Marconi’s struggle to perfect wireless communication, nor the minor story of a murder really captures the imagination like Devil did. The murder subplot feels tacked on, the Marconi portion lacks much to spark the imagination, and the very tenuous connection between the two is not unifying in defining a place and time.  

Outer Dark – Cormac McCarthy
This was the one novel of McCarthy’s I had never read, though I have no idea why. I write this with the admission that I find no hyperbole in calling McCarthy the greatest novelist of the latter half of the 20th century. His gift for beautiful sparseness and dialogue is unmatched. Most of his stories deal fairly firmly in the world of the real, even given the apocalyptic fringes of his magnum opus Blood Meridian. This story blurs the lines a bit more, hinting at a more metaphorical progression. The novel recounts the parallel wanderings of a brother and sister seeking each other and their missing child (highlight again one of McCarthy’s two primary themes of 1) Don’t go to Mexico, and 2) Appalachia is $&^%ed up.) through an allegorical dreamscape of characters and slipping sense of time’s passing. It’s an interesting departure for McCarthy, and it worked well. As usual, his terse, spartan exchanges drop worlds of meaning and backstory.

Welcome to Hard Times – E.L. Doctorow
Somehow, I’ve gotten this far in life without reading Doctorow. When someone recommended I give him a shot, I picked up the first thing available at the library, which was Hard Times. It reads as a fairly straight-ahead old-western tail of a town struggling to rebuild itself after an encounter with outlaws. In restrospect, I realize it is a microcosm commentary on human resilience and failing, but fails to really bring broader themes out well. It’s well written, though not astoundingly beautiful in style. The fact that it was made into a middling Western movie speaks to its accessibility, and its general place among his works. I do have to say it set my expectations for Doctorow fairly low, so the next book came as a bit of a shock to the system.

City of God – E.L. Doctorow
City of God (no relation to the movie about Brazilian gangs) is almost the exact opposite of Hard Times. This book about a falling man of god and NYC is exceedingly dense, varying between Chabon-esque dialogue and abstract contemplations of God, astronomy, and humanity. Doctorow is brutal with readers in terms of limiting exposition, and often deliberately leaving only the slightest clues as to which character is speaking at any given time. There’s at least two books/stories-within-a-book going on, none of which are explicity delineated from the main story. It’s a challenging read, but not pretentiously so. Doctorow crams a lot of contemplation into the story, but manages to lash it all together into something that feels fulfilling, even though it bogs down a bit in the middle.. Pro tip – don’t try to read in 15 minute sections before bed.

Hunger makes me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
I have literally no idea why I picked this book up, other than it was available in my digital lending library, and I like Carrie’s work on Portlandia. To my pop culture shame, I think partly I just really wanted to stop mentally confusing Sleater-Kinney with Shonen Knife, both bands I am tangentially aware of but have never suffered through an album with. It’s an interesting, but not especially well-written, account of  her meandering from the post-punk/Riot-Grrl scene in the west coast through semi-stardom to the present. Unfortunately, despite its attempts at self-deprecating wryness, it ends up being a little self-unaware. If I was ever interested in the riot grrl movement or the music history of the region, I am less so now. The depictions of the difference between rock stardom stereotypes and the reality of a not-quite-making-it band were probably the more interesting part of the book. Brownstein does speak volumes about disillusionment with movements (whether she intends to or not), but it doesn’t add up to a really fascinating memoir.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon
This is Chabon’s earliest work, completed as a student, and…it shows. I am an ardent fan of his later work, like Kavalier and Klay and I think he’s a master of dialogue and pacing. But this early work is thin. It shows a lot of promise of what is to come, but just doesn’t flesh its characters out in the same vivid and robust way his later works do. That being said, it’s still a better novel than many other first attempts I’ve read, and worth reading. The story generally revolves around themes of identify, in its boy-boy-girl-sometimes other girl-motorcycle-mafia love pentangle. The one thing seriously missing is the inclusion of the city itself as as much of a living breathing character as NYC is in Klay. It’s there, but it’s more of an in joke than a force.

Saga, Buffy Season 8/9/10 – Various
I lumped these two series together, partly in shame for even including them on the list. I don’ regularly read comics/graphic novels, but once in a while will dip my toe back in that pool if something has a really great story. I read through enough collected volumes of each to qualify as a book to me.
Saga was hyped up to me as one of those non-comic comics with Joss Whedon-style dialogue. I like Vaughn’s other graphic novels Y; The Last Man and Ex Machina, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I did not like Saga as much. As usual, the characters are compelling, but the story just has so many elements that were too silly to gloss over (a race of TV headed creatures) and distracted from the art of the dialogue.
Buffy the Vampire, Season 8 (and 9, and 10) is a comic-form continuance of the TV show. So right there, I was ready to pay the price of admission. To its credit, Season 8 starts out well drawn, with fantastic Buffy-style humor, and great storylines. Unfortunatley it descends pretty quickly into a morass of an ending. Thankfully, Season 9 and 10 redeem it. This is solid Buffy storytelling and dialogue, in some cases better than Season 7. Buffy fans who can convince themselves to read comic form should give it a shot.

Choose your Own autobiography – Neal Patrick Harris
NPH has always felt like someone I grew up with to some extent. We are close in age, I was the same geeky kid (no! Say it isn’t so!) I saw on the screen in Doogie Howser (minus the medical degree) at the same time. Until recently, NPH had pretty much dropped off the map until some Broadway work and Harold and Kumar gave him a Travolta-level resurgence. When I saw his autobio, and that it was done in classic “Choose your own adventure” format, I took a chance. The result is…interesting. The gimmicky format is enjoyable, but he never really commits to it. There’s a few token shoutouts to the old CYOO format, but it feels a little tacked on. The writing is ok, and occasionally witty, but feels very sanitized. Either NPH has had the most absurdly blessed life, or this is a very curated autobiography. Even in its self-deprecating style, it’s an exercise in self promotion. I think part of it is the Broadway coming some extent it feels like a Broadway number. Big, boisterous, a little sappy, but with a sense of playing a character. I never felt like he was willing to really dig into the hard times, or the other parts of life that make someone a fully rounded character. It feels like this is someone who has been playing a role his entire life, and making pitches, and wasn’t able to set it aside for a more personal and real account. Even his accounts of coming out are almost wholly positive and unrealistically, overwhelmingly saccharine.  We get it, NPH, you live an charmed existence. Unfortunately, scrubbed of its darker pieces, it's not terribly enthralling. 

Isaac's storm – Erik Larson
Another Larson historical work, Isaac focuses on the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the deadliest in America’s history. Larson does a great job in portraying the human folly and experience of the storm, and gets at the horror of it that a broader view misses. I give him credit for not weighing this book down with a tacked on substory…his accounting of the hurricane is directly told through a historical figure’s account rather than a counterplay with a minor event. It’s more cohesive than Thunderstruck. However, Larson misses an opportunity to tie the event more strongly to the time and place. It feels a little out of context. He spends a lot of time on the formation and bureaucracy of the Weather Service, but it’s not time well spent. It robs the book of ample time to dig into the event itself, and especially the aftermath. A good account of the storm, regardless.

Dead Wake – Erik Larson
Yet another Larson book (not intentionally…I just happened to have two I’d been meaning to read, when this came out). This time Larson is detailing the seminal moment for US involvement in WWI surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania. As usual, Larson has problems with consistency of detail. He spends only a few pages on the context (the buildup to the war, and the weave of alliances that brought it about), and an unfortunate amount of time on minor details of passenger backstories. However, that being said, this is a well balanced alternative to his usual, somewhat hokey, gimmick of counterpoint stories (which really only worked marginally well in Devil in the White City). It feels more like Isaac than Thunderstruck. This era is a bit of a historical black hole for a lot of Americans, with much more attention focused on WWII, so I enjoyed the read.

Up Next - Annie Proulx's new novel, Barkskins, and more from Ondaatje, McKewan, et al. 

1 - I also started a few books that were either shelved temporarily, or I just gave up on. The greatest disappointment was Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me." It had such a great premise, essentially of a father's missive to his son, saturated with exploration of race and identity in America, but it was fundamentally flawed. Even given Coates' occasionally powerful (but wildly inconsistent) writing style, the overall content of the book was shallow, and a bit intellectually disingenuous.  I know it was not intended to be social history, but a more personal account. That being said, it drifted too far in to the realm of ally-shaming and parroting the unfortunate tendency toward shallow, unnuanced complaint. It lacked any self-discipline in backing up its assertions, as if saying something inherently makes it true. From the very start, Coates builds a house on sand, shored up by pillars that just don't match the reality of modern society. One does not have to discount any continuing injustice to admit that there has been progress made since slavery, or that there is hope and value in continuing the fight. Coates' work could have balanced all of that with a more powerful focus on expressing the feelings of outrage and hopelessness, and tapping into bridging the gap to share that experience. Instead, he spent too much time in what I read on equating the emotion to the reality as polemic. This is the point at which critics are usually accused of being over-reactive, or being forced to confront things they don't want to confront..that the fault is theirs, and their privilege speaking, that they can't possibly have an actual point because of their gender/ethnicity. To be honest, in this case, I think the Emperor's new clothes really aren't resplendent, and it's not my fault for failing to make them so. I stopped midway to read critiques, positive and negative, and just didn't' find anything that gave me hope it would get any better. I can fully accept that, as a white male, I cannot hope to truly empathize with Coates' message. That being said, I'm also not willing to be ally-shamed into surrendering any critical thought I have on the value of the work and its message, which ultimately is overly simplistic and bleak. It's sad to see a  potent literary voice stray into the "more outragier-than-thou" trap of mistaking hyperbole and shock for substance. Race in America remains an incredibly important and potent subject, one that demands respect of its profound nature, if not seriousness, in those who tackle it. For me, Coates fails to either capture the intense personal experience or to accurately deal with the multifacted nature of the problem. Instead he dips her toes into a halfway realm that serves neither purpose well.  Ellison's Invisible Man, this is not.   

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Indiana (Black and White)

Barn and Storm (B&W)
Barn and Storm

It feels odd to post black and white photos of Indiana. The Indiana I have known is a green, growing place; a place the green of corn stalks, and the pink of old white barns in sunset light. Fading red tractors, shiny new green ones, ruddy grins, and big blue skies.

But in fairness, the farmsteads of my wife's lineage are also places of old architecture, solid machinery, and history. Like my agrarian hometown, these are places where the past has not been simply swept away or covered over with a new facade. It remains in physical (if weathered) form as a testament to those years and people who have gone before. In that mindset, the black and white doesn't feel as odd. Without color, you can see some of these things as they are, without the distracting juxtaposition of old and new.

These are a few shots from our recent trip (people pictures not included), along with a few from prior trips.  

Weathervane (B&W)
Which way the wind blows

Battle scars

Window and wall (B&W)
Window and wall


Corn Field (B&W)
Corn traverses the folds

Barn (B&W)
Windows (B&W)
2016-05-07 17.51.17-3
To the sky

Lightning rod
Wood and paint

Oil can; Farmhouse view

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Columbus, Texas

Fenceline and historic home

Mired in the sprawling urban behemoth of Houston, it is easy to forget that most of Texas is a patchwork of small, rural towns. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the chance to get out of the city now and again, and drive out through the country between metro areas. Growing up in a creaky old farmhouse, in an equally creaky old mill town, these sojourns feel a lot like coming home. The politics are a little different than where I grew up, and the barbecue is infinitely better, but for the most part, small towns are small towns wherever you go.  Describe a place with big trees over big lawns, old rows of semi-occupied storefronts on Main street, a Dairy Queen down the road, houses that are referred to by the name of the family who lived there three generations ago, and a cow:human ratio that tips toward the bovine, and you could be about anywhere in the country.  Their roots go deep, and the current place lives in and among the bones of its past incarnations.

Columbus, Texas,is a quintessential posterchild for a subspecies of that rural archetype, the Texas county seat. If you want to understand historic Texas, don't go to the Stetsons and lattes crowd of the urban centers; go spend some time in rural Texas county seats. I guarantee you'll find a massive limestone courthouse, big porches on small streets, probably a historical marker every 5 feet.

I had a meeting there last week, and got in earlier than expected, and took a walk around town. I need to go back there in better light some day with a proper camera some day..

Rural Texas landscape

Columbus is awash in old and sprawling Live Oaks
In no less than four places, the roads actually bend or split to make way for old trees

County Court House

Courthouse and Tower
As one would expect, many of the street names are historical Texas surnames. 
Lots of big sprawling old houses....often built with slave labor, sadly.

Small Texas town trifecta: Big porch, pig trees, American flag.
Old storefronts in the center of town
Masonic Hall

'56 Chevy Bel Air decomposing

Roadside Wildflowers (Indian Paintbrush)