What Unite Us

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Dan Rather draws on his decades of experience reporting on politics and world events to inform this set of essays, mixing anecdotes from the history he’s witnessed with stories from his modest childhood in Texas. His quietly inspiring exploration of what it means to be an American aims at bridging the current partisan divide to find principles that all Americans can agree on, ideals like inclusion, empathy, science, and service. Rather states progressive values in terms that conservatives can agree with, leaving the specific policy implications of these values for readers to decide for themselves.  He does all that without mentioning our current president by name. It’s a brilliant rhetorical move, one that I think George Lakoff would approve of.  Directly invoking that name would invite charges of partisanship, when Rather’s goal is to transcend party loyalties. Maybe Rather is too gentle and indirect in his arguments, and perhaps it’s impossible to change minds and hearts without offending someone. But I do think there is value in his project here, and that if we can all agree on these principles, even if we disagree on how to act on them, there is cause for hope. I’m considering giving this book to my Dad for Christmas.

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Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I enjoyed John Green’s earlier books, so I have been one of the many fans eagerly anticipating his newest novel. In Turtles All the Way Down, Green’s first-person narrator, Aza, struggles with extreme anxiety and OCD, to the point of self-harm. She fixates on germs, gut bacteria, and her microbiome. Green manages to make her anxiety seem utterly reasonable–which is of course the exact right way to portray this disorder from the inside looking out. Mental illness makes the extreme thoughts that are its main symptom seem absolutely logical, even inevitable. Like, why aren’t we all always freaking out about our complex, fragile microbiome? How does anyone ever kiss, when it’s obviously disgusting swapping so many germs?

The plot is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of a millionaire CEO, and a romance with the CEO’s teenage son, Davis. Several times, Aza shows a lot of genre-savvy. She knows how the money should affect her relationship with Davis, and how her unique mind should help her to solve mysteries. but she doesn’t want to or can’t go along with those genre rules.

My one criticism of the book might be that Davis is too perfect, too accepting of Aza’s flaws, too poetic to be a real teenage boy. He’s obsessed with astronomy and writes contemplative reflections on Shakespeare quotes on a blog that Aza happens to discover through some lucky cyber-stalking.

I was almost more interested in Aza’s best friend Daisy, a fast-talking fanfic writer, than in Davis or the mystery surrounding his father. Daisy is super charming, and she took me in from the beginning, but there is a seed of meanness and selfishness and discord in her relationship with Aza that has to be revealed and fixed. I love it when strong female characters have complex friendships with deep-seated problems that are NOT rooted in jealousy over a boy.

In the end, there is resolution, but considerably less than in most YA books. There’s no happily ever after. Aza is certainly not cured. She will always have anxiety. The heartbreaking realism of Aza’s difficult future is not something Green flinches away from, and I really appreciate that.

Hunger

Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a novelist, essayist, and cultural critic that I was honored to meet in the summer. I already knew the outlines of Gay’s life story from reading Bad Feminist, but this book lays out her trauma and its aftermath in detail. It was heavy and hard to read at times. Gay describes in excruciating detail what it’s like to live in her body, the physical discomfort, the social stigma, the loneliness.

Gay talks openly about her struggles to fit into a world made by and for smaller people, her hesitations about going in public and doing things I find normal and simple, the planning and accommodations she has to make to get around her body’s incompatibility with our physical world. I was already on board with body positivity and fat acceptance, but reading this book made me realize again how wrong it is to make moral judgements based on body size. I also think that conversations about fat acceptance sometimes limit themselves to people who are overweight or even obese, but who are not so big that they have trouble fitting into standardized clothes or furniture.  “We’ll accept fat people,” people say, “but not if they’re THAT fat.” Which obviously completely undermines the point. Gay offers readers a lesson in empathy for those we are much too quick to judge and dismiss. You never know what someone else has gone through, the deep reasons why they are the way they are.

The book doesn’t really have a happy ending, but instead a brave look to Gay’s future, where she will work to approach happiness. I so admire her, her spirit and determination to move forward despite everything that happened to her, and her courage to look unflinchingly at the ugly things weaker people would have to repress or ignore just to survive, and then to say them to the world.

The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

I picked up the first of the famous Wheel of Time series to try to fill in a gap in my reading in the fantasy genre, and was really disappointed not to enjoy it as much as I was expecting to. I call myself a fantasy fan, so I felt obligated to finish it. It’s a very long book, but I stuck it out, in case there was something at the end to justify the hype. Maybe the ending is amazing enough to justify the thousands of fans and dozens of sequels, I was hoping. 

The language grated on me and was a constant source of annoyance. I enjoy high fantasy language when it’s done well. I love Tolkien, Robin HobbGarth Nix, and Jillian Kuhlman. But Jordan’s language seemed affected to me, not genuine or authentic, like his characters were elementary school kids reading lines in a bad play. I didn’t buy the weird invented words like gleeman (a minstrel–why not just say that?), or the newly-coined curses (“Blood and ashes, Batman!”).

I’m someone who doesn’t shy away from a long book, and who happily dives into thousands of pages when they’re well-written and worth the time to read. But this book is way too long, and its length problem starts at the sentence level. I could edit 10-25% of the scenes and events and side characters out of the story, and then another 10-25% of the words out of every page that’s left. It’s a good general rule that if you need a dictionary in the back to help your reader keep track of your mythology, then you’re either dumping it on too quickly, or you made it too complex, or both.

I thought the characters were annoying and impetuous because they constantly make dumb decisions. Like, don’t tell the wizard who saved your whole town that you’re having dreams where the devil talks to you and you wake up with your dream-pricked finger bleeding. Of course, go explore the creepy ruined city, and follow the guy with no shadow. And then, go ahead and steal a jeweled dagger from an enchanted treasure and hide it while playing with it obsessively. These decisions are so incredibly stupid and genre-blind that I lost patience with them and could no longer dismiss them as motivated by superstition or teenage capriciousness. They were pure distress balls.

A quote on the back of the copy I read said, “Robert Jordan has a powerful vision of good and evil.” But I did not find the portrayal of evil in this book to be persuasive at all. If real evil worked in such a transparent, obvious way, announcing itself and insisting that people bow down to it, evil would be much easier to resist than it actually is. The motiveless, pointless evil of this book’s villain was overblown, caricatured, and flat-out boring. Similarly, all of the talk of the Pattern, and the Wheel that weaves it, is another problem that takes power and meaning away from the characters and their story. If all of the actions of the characters are simply a result of their fate, of the turning of an abstract Wheel, then they have no agency and their choices are meaningless. If that’s the case, what’s the point of reading about them?

There are so many elements of this story that have exact parallels to The Lord of the Rings that it seems like kind of a rip-off. I’m sure others have pointed these similarities out before: idyllic farmland attacked by outsiders, a magic wizard who calls the reluctant hero to join a quest, an epically long backstory. Even the people and places are the same:

  • Orcs = Trollocs
  • Wizard Gandalf = Aes Sedai Morraine
  • Aragorn the Ranger, heir to the throne of Gondor = Warder Lan, the last Lord of the Seven Towers, the crownless king of the Malkieri
  • four hobbits = four teenagers
  • The Shire = Emond’s Field
  • Ringwraiths = Myrdraal/Fades/Half-Men
  • Ents = long-lived, tall creatures that call humans “hasty” = Ogier
  • Misty Mountains = Mountains of Mist
  • Mount Doom = Shayol Ghul in the Mountains of Dhoom
  • Mordor = The Blight
  • The Dark Lord Sauron = Ba’alzamon/Shai’tan/The Dark One

At first I thought the changes Jordan made in rewriting The Lord of the Rings made his story more inclusive because there are many more female characters than in Tolkien’s books. But the gender politics of the One Power are so strange that I’m not sure if they’re progressive or regressive. The principle of balance seems good and neutral, but if balance has to be restored by taking fictional power away from a group that has little real power, I don’t necessarily think that’s a positive and inclusive choice for an author to make.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie lost his mother in 2015, and this is the book he wrote to deal with his grief. He writes about his difficult childhood living on the Spokane Indian reservation, his volatile relationship with his mother, and the secrets his family kept for years. This book was an education for me about Native Americans and the effects colonization has had on their lives and families. Alexie also writes about his experiences of racism and his reaction to last year’s election. The form of the memoir is fragmented and disconnected personal essays, stories, and poems, stitched together like one of his mother’s quilts.

I knew The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was autobiographical, but I didn’t realize exactly how closely that story parallels Alexie’s real life. In some ways, reading this book was like reading a sequel to that novel, written by its protagonist as an adult. Grown-up fans who read Alexie’s first novel years ago will enjoy this book as well.

Alexie is a gifted performer and an amazing reader, so his audiobooks are a real treat. He communicates so much more with his voice, adding accents, singing, and tearful emotion. I think if you read his work in print, you’re missing out.

Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclafani has written two novels so far. Both books have first person narrators who are rich and privileged white girls in the South in the mid-Twentieth century. The decadent settings are thoroughly described by characters who clearly love their homes, and whose strong ties to place anchor them.

 

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The action of this novel begins when Thea Atwell arrives at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an elite, old-fashioned boarding school in the mountains of North Carolina, in 1930. She has been banished from her family for a mysterious offense. She genuinely loves horses and is an excellent rider; many scenes are devoted to her adventures on horseback. It’s a coming-of-age story, but much of the plot is about her ill-advised love affairs. Thea is not always admirable; she’s selfish and very immature, a child using her new sexuality as a toy to manipulate others, more out of ignorance and boredom than malice. She is driven to explore the power she discovers she has over men, as well as wracked with homesickness for Florida and guilt for her sins.

The After Party

Cece is 25 in 1957 Houston, a socialite and young mother. Her best friend Joan is wild and beautiful and secretive. She disappeared for a year when the girls were 18, and the secret of that time is a question Cece has been wondering about ever since. It’s a rare book about female friendship, its complications, enduring power, and the pain of its loss.

DiSclafani’s handling of the secret at the center of this book is somewhat more deft than in her first novel, and the plot depends less on her protagonist’s immaturity and rash decisions (partly because Cece is significantly older than Thea). I think it’s my favorite of the two.

Feel-Bad Education

Feel-Bad Education And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Kohn takes self-evident facts of human psychology and applies them to education, pointing out how conventional schooling goes against obvious principles like “Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.” I appreciated how he defines progressive education and explains why it’s so rare; this concept is something you often hear about in education circles, but one that I have never personally seen in practice. Some people might find Kohn kind of extreme: not only does he oppose standardized testing of any kind, he’s even against all forms of number and letter grades. But even though he argues for ideas that most would consider radical, he always traces them back to principles that most people would agree with, and thoroughly and persuasively explains his position. His work is very well-researched and based on evidence, as well as on his progressive views on the purpose of education.