Category Archives: Book Reviews
A few months ago, I decided I had to face up to a truth that was haunting me. I had never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m not sure how I could even call myself a “book lover” or well-read without it on the list. A fundamental piece of American literature missing from my mental stacks. It was time to right the wrong.
Uncle Tom’s cabin was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Northern white abolitionist woman in 1852. It was written and published serially, and was widely read initially and great to become an iconic part of our American history. It’s said that Abraham Lincoln said to Ms. Stowe when he met her at the start of the Civil War, “So this is the little lady that started this great war.” It is a fantastic, fascinating read. Far better than I expected and not just because much of the prose has held up incredibly well, but also because as a piece of our history, you can read it with both an immediacy and a certain distance that helps you see how it functioned in society. If you do pick it up, there’s a fair amount of religion to wade through that can be a bit repetitive (part of serial nature of how it was published), but if you skim those sections, it goes quickly.
Another reason that Ms. Stowe’s novel is so compelling is because it begins with what I have always thought was one of the most pernicious myths of slavery- the “happy” slave. The fictional Uncle Tom is the well-loved and gently treated head slave on a plantation owned by a kind couple. A couple that only own slaves because “that’s how it is” and the woman in particular thinks it’s an evil institution. This is particularly clever as a opening device because it establishes a sympathetic connection between Northern readers and the main characters. These Northern readers that Ms. Stowe wanted to inspire are the type who may have been opposed to slavery on Sundays (on Sundays), but who were lulled into inaction by the myth of the happy slave and benevolent master. Naturally, this myth is deftly exploded and destroyed over the course of the book.
The book steps the reader slowly, even gently into the ever-darker truth of slavery. I can imagine the genteel reader of the mid-1800’s by turns being titillated, horrified, and at the end wondering how did they get here? Of course, the story has a redemptive ending, as the freed & runaway slaves cross into the safety of Canada, aided by the help of brave and pious Quakers. The aim of the book was to make the lives of slaves come alive for the reader and further show that there was a path to freedom. By avoiding projecting the story into the future, she doesn’t directly address the question of abolition in the United States, though her characters discuss it freely.
By coincidence, while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I began another book that made the experience of reading it all the more relevant and telling. I started to listen to the audio book of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a book that came out in 2010 and had been on my to-read list since shortly after it came out. This non-fiction book chronicles the life and legacy of a young black woman who’s cells (tumor cells) have become one of the most important building blocks of modern medicine and science in the form of “HeLa cells.” The story is incredible on it’s own, and I’d highly recommend the excellent audio book of it, but when read in conjunction with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the two stories paint a vivid history of the black experience in America- both how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.
Henrietta’s life experience, her care, her treatment, and the struggles of her children and family, when viewed against a backdrop of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the slavery that was the reality of her parents lives, are an important and humbling window into the black American experience. Of course, the fact that Henrietta’s story is true makes it all the more compelling. While listening, I laughed, I cried, I shook my head at the indignity, and learned a great deal of fascinating science in the process. Ms. Skloot handles a complex story and the even more complex science with care and balances objectivity with deep empathy for her subject.
With the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, among too many others, fresh in our minds and hearts, it’s vitally important for all of us, particularly whites, to understand the historic tapestry of slavery, oppression, fear, discrimination, and exploitation that leads to where we are today. Chris Rock’s recent interview, in which he makes the brilliant observation that the idea of “black progress” is a fallacy and that it’s really “white progress” that needs to be scrutinized, resonates even more strongly when help up against these stories as a backdrop.
I love history and particularly personal histories. Both non-fiction and historically-accurate fiction have the power to teach, heal, and guide us. I have spent a number of years especially engrossed and amazed by the scale of WWII and the people involved, but I am so glad to have traveled deeper into our own US History through these two books.
I highly recommend reading both of them and if you are like me, and enjoy having a couple of books going at the same time- you couldn’t find a more compelling pairing.
Book Review: 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D
Now before you tune out because the title sounds sanctimonious or dull- let me ask you, do you love your grandmother? Did you enjoy your granddad’s stories? There’s a lot of wisdom accumulated along with all those years. And if you didn’t have grandparents that you WANTED to learn anything from, don’t you wish you did?! Well, this book is your chance to meet those people and it’s a lovely, gently inspiring read.
In fact, it would be a great book to read together as a family or couple. It’s like sitting down with that grandmother from the Matrix- by the end, you’ll have eaten that cookie and will feel wiser and more content. Who knows, with this new-found serenity, perhaps you will go fight the villainous forces in your life- greed, distraction, the hectic pace of life, and whatever else pulls you away from the things that matter. Family, friends, relationships, the beauty of the world we live in.
30 Lessons is written by Karl Pillemer, a highly regarded gerontologist and is the distillation of interviews with more than 1,000 people 70 – 100+ years old (so, yeah 10,000 years of wisdom- BAM!). Think of the times they have lived through- these are folks who were in WWII, lived through the depression, the invention of computers, the effects and eradication of devastating disease, the fight for equality for women and African Americans, and many other historic events. It stands to reason that as they approach the sunset of their lives, they have some pretty insightful things to share with those of us hacking away at the dense jungle of mid-life.
These life lessons offer nothing earth-shaking, rather it feels like the kind of things you know you “should” do, but sometimes forget or get too caught up to do- and because the advice is delivered by folks who have been through it, it has a depth and resonance that is impactful. The lessons cover everything from love, work, kids, aging, friends, personal values and faith. Whether you are recently graduated from high school or are in your sixties there is something in this that you’ll enjoy. And if you are old enough to be interviewed for the book- how about you read this, append it with your own notes, and send it or discuss it with your family? I know they’ll enjoy your thoughts and benefit from them.
My favorite part of the book, is how much all these folks are ENJOYING their later years- how much opportunity they see to learn and do new things, or just to take time to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. We could use more positive messages about aging- if we are lucky, it will happen to all of us, so we might as well get the most out of it. Now, I’m off to make my dad’s divine chocolate chip cookies… guess I’m just in the mood for them.
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I am enjoying the juxtaposition of reading two wildly different biography/memoir books at the same time. The first is Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House, by Sally Bedell Smith; and the second is Get in the Van, by Henry Rollins about his experience as lead singer of the iconic hardcore punk band Black Flag. Now, neither of these books is newly published (both have been out about 10 years) and I might make you dizzy if I unraveled the chain of thoughts that led me to be reading them both at the same time. The former is a book about a couple that I feel I should admire but I find I am wary of doing just that. The latter book is about someone that I have long and unabashedly admired- and yes I have the order right, Jack and then Henry.Both books are enjoyable and transporting in their own ways. Grace and Power is written in a graceful, elegant style- never using one word when two would do, and thus providing rich, majestic detail about the people, lives, and style of the Kennedy White House. The grandeur and personalities, along with the money and society at their disposal make the entire narrative feel surreal. Times certainly have changed and it’s nearly impossible to imagine having such a collegial atmosphere between people representing so many parts of the spectrum – political, social, journalistic, and artistic. Rollins’ recollections in Get in the Van, cover the early eighties with tight clipped sentences, plenty of profanity, and blunt assessments of the people, situations, and music. You’d never catch yourself thinking, “tell me how you really feel.” Despite the economy of speech and the lack of descriptive language (or perhaps because of it), what’s revealed is a gritty, passionate, bloody, intense world of music and the ethos of the hard core punk scene.
Reading about these two men and their worlds in parallel is fascinating because it highlights the degree to which human beings can occupy different spheres- not just in the world but in their own minds. One minute, I’ll be curled up with a coffee, ensconced in my safe suburbia feeling the tug of the mayhem of the frenetic 80’s punk scene, ready to smash and rage and riot; and the next time I sit down to read, I feel transported to a world of witty, erudite conversation, ambitious agendas concealed behind a veneer of sophistication and culture, and flexible morale standards that would make the most enlighted on my cul-de-sac blush with shock.
Examining history, even recent history and the lives of colorful, diverse people that have become cultural icons, has to be one of the most interesting ways you can while away a Saturday afternoon. Enjoy!
Get the books from Amazon:
Grace and Power by Sally Bedell Smith
Get in the Van by Henry Rollins
Now, you know, I read A LOT and write a lot of book reviews- and for every 10 I read, 7 feel worth recommending, but every 50 or maybe 100- a book comes along that takes my breath away. It becomes a book that I wish I could go back in time and read for the first time again. This is one of those rare, exquisite books- and somewhat annoyingly, it’s categorized as YA fiction
. Sure- the main characters are under the legal drinking age in the US, but their story is one that will resonate, and sometimes cut, the heart of anyone who has lived through the journey from child to adult. It’s “young adult” in the same way that a story about a child solider would be. And similarly, it’s a book about living with death or perhaps living in spite of death.
The book is by turns funny, sarcastic, erudite, achingly sad, and hopeful. It’s not a light read, but it is easy to fly through it and as I finished it last night- by turns telling myself to close my iPad and take just one more day to savor the story… I couldn’t do it. I had to push through to the end, even though I knew finishing it would leave me with that hollow feeling of losing a friend. This book and the luminous characters will live on in your imagination and you’ll feel lucky to have met them. But, be warned- it’s beautiful the way a Japanese Tsukiji knife is- incredible to experience, but it will cut and probably so swiftly that you won’t know until you see a tiny red trail across your finger.
If you read it and don’t enjoy it- don’t tell me because I will judge your taste in literature.. and none too kindly.