Book Reviews for Summer 2010
Coordinates of Yes
By Janée J. Baugher (SAR’92) Poetry (Ahadada Books)
Baugher’s poetry collection, written during a six-week jaunt through Europe, is clever, often wistful, sometimes humorous, and always human. In verse titled for places, moods, strangers, and works of visual art, she guides us not just to the streets, hostels, and lofty museums of London, Paris, and beyond, but takes us to something familiar within ourselves: the traveler in all his incarnations.
On the road, the poet is on high alert, for the “design” of a couple’s locking and unlocking hands or for the nuance in a classic painting. Of Pieter de Hooch’s The Mother, she concludes,
The mother, content in domesticity.
The daughter, her back to them,
prepares to run.
The Yes in the collection’s title refers to the state of mind of both the traveler and the viewer of art. As a self-guided adventurer, Baugher brims with affirmation and whimsy. “Eiffel Tower: View of Paris” is a humble, respectful ode to a stair-sweep. She even manages to cast the Mona Lisa in a refreshing light, and a poem about an Alberto Giacometti figurine is itself, on the page, tall and emaciated. Savored as travelogue, the verse deftly distills the wanderer’s spirit in lines like these, the conclusion of “Border Crossing: France/Switzerland”:
…The irrepressible stars,
quite recognizable above
the road at my back
Many of us have been there and will take flight again. These poems remind us how travel nurtures the soul. ~Susan Seligson
Like a Sea
By Samuel Amadon (CAS’02) Poetry (University of Iowa Press)
The winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, Amadon’s Like a Sea draws its title from a line in Wallace Stevens’s “The River of Rivers in Connecticut”: “The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.”
These poems flow, ebb, and curl back on themselves like waves, like the sea. His voice often seems to be at war with itself — lurching, halting, retreating, or intruding with a dissenting narrator whose declarations and laments merge with the poet’s. Consider these lines, from “Of Deadish New England Towns Sups the Incandescence”:
I run my hand through my hair, more of my hair
comes with my hand whether or not that is a new
thought is almost how I am pleased to think so.
Amadon’s demanding but oddly compelling verse draws equally, according to his publisher’s notes, from Stevens, Gertrude Stein, John Berryman, and Robert Frost, an eclectic lineup that might account for the poems ricocheting between hilarity and pathos. Amadon’s is a busy, crackling mind but, as these lines from “Each,” the seventh of his “H” series, reveal, his heart is lively and knowing, too:
I can be here again, saying it over
in a way so it piled, in a way
piling, as we cannot see it
ending, where it is from, the reason for
it is in fact frightening
to hear so much anywhere in anyone.
Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time
By Kristin Swenson (STH’93, GRS’01)) Nonfiction (HarperCollins Publishers)
Every once in a while a rigorous, scholarly book comes along that’s a satisfying read for the rest of us. Swenson’s is such a book: a wild ride jam-packed not just with crucial insights and historical perspective, but also with the kind of details you want to share.
The word “Bible” means something like “little library,” and Swenson, who teaches religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of World Studies, has been pulling narratives off the shelf and deconstructing them chapter and verse — a system that she informs us didn’t come into being until the sixteenth century.
As she pores over both the Old and New Testaments, we learn that in the world’s best-selling text, which of course “didn’t fall out of the sky in King James English,” everything is fraught with ambiguity, from the many meanings of Eden’s apple to Jonah’s “big fish” to Noah’s Ark to heaven, hell, and Armageddon, which, for all the attention it gets, is barely mentioned at all. “God’s relationship to people is in, under, over, and behind it all, making (the Bible) unapologetically unverifiable,” writes Swenson, who is clearly passionate about, and deeply respectful of, her subject.
Bible Babel is much more than an academic “betcha didn’t know” compendium. Swenson holds some of the Bible’s best-known stories up to the light. For example, “How the mighty have fallen!” was not a wry observation by the newly anointed David, but a grief-stricken cry of mourning, repeated as “a poetic dirge over the dead bodies of his king, Saul, and best friend, Jonathan,” Swenson writes. “He sang this song of lamentation, praising their greatness.” And generations of peace activists calling for humanity to “beat their swords into plowshares” may be largely unaware that elsewhere in the scriptures the prophet Joel said a time was coming to “beat your plowshares into swords.”
When it comes to turning biblical assumptions on their heads, Swenson has a field day with references that echo through the popular culture. Yes, Joshua did lead the ancient Israelites in a victory over Jericho, but there is one problem: according to the archaeological record, at the time of Joshua, Jericho was a small, unfortified village — with no walls to come a-tumblin’ down. And Swenson offers a compelling reinterpretation of Job’s repentance.
In a chapter titled “Sites to Be Seen,” she proceeds to dispel various sects’ widespread insistence that, for example, Eden was in Scotland, the middle of Africa, or as Mormons believe, in Jackson County, Missouri.
Still, these ageless quibbles may be beside the point. “Inasmuch as they may have distinct geographical locations,” she writes, “these places are even more significant in their interpretation — as sites where the dramas of creation and destruction, nation building and demise, passion, miracle, and mystery transpired.” It is in passages like this that we come to share Swenson’s awe of the Bible for its humanity, narrative richness, and enduring source of inspiration. ~SS
Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America
By Molly Rogers (COM’89) Nonfiction (Yale University Press)
“At the heart of this story is the question of what it means to be human,” writes Rogers in the preface of this weighty, lush volume, which combines photography, narrative history, and short fiction to tell a story that needed telling. In the 1800s bad science and stark photographs of slaves conspired to make a case for the inferiority of the black race. Delia’s Tears not only chronicles the story of the images — “lost” for more than a century until their rediscovery in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum — in the context of the race politics and anti-Darwinism of the time, but brings the photographic subjects to life in brief, imagined scenes.
Here we envision Delia, after being taken to the city to be intimately photographed at the request of the “Professor,” Louis Agassiz, a once-respected naturalist and Harvard professor later discredited for his racism-fueled theories: “She tugged at the coarse calico until it was free from her breasts and gathered around her waist. ‘Yes, that’s good. Now hold still here and look here, into this lens’ … she raised her eyes to where he was pointing and saw a tiny picture of herself, upside down. ‘Yes, that’s good. Now don’t move. Do not move.’ She felt herself disappear.”
Rogers writes absorbingly and with equal authority about the worlds of scientific research, documentary photography, and life on the cotton plantations of the Carolinas. Her ability to put herself in the shoes of a range of figures is admirable, as are her astute musings, such as this one, in a chapter about the cotton fields: “It was little wonder white people considered blacks a degraded race. Dressed in rags, denied education and even basic autonomy, they had few opportunities to demonstrate their potential as individuals, as human beings.” For Delia and the other slaves who sat for these photographs, Rogers’s accomplished book goes a long way, if posthumously, to restoring their dignity. ~SS
Doubting the Devout
By Nora L. Rubel (GRS’98) Nonfiction (Columbia University Press)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, represent a tiny minority — roughly 3 percent — of the already small population of American Jews. But these cloistered communities loom large in the cultural imagination of their nonseparatist Jewish counterparts, both as cautionary tales and as romanticized totems of Judaism’s roots.
In her study of depictions of haredi Jews in contemporary literature, film, and news media, Rubel argues that these portrayals are increasingly “laden with suspicion rather than sentiment, nerves rather than nostalgia.” As Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox Jewish communities become more open to secular life, she writes, their cultural rift with haredi Jews widens, leaving fear and misunderstanding in its wake.
Rubel, an assistant professor of religion and classics at the University of Rochester, handles both sides with care, but pulls no punches when she considers the “often formulaic and manipulative representations of the ultra-Orthodox by the dominant American Jewish culture.” These caricatures, she argues, speak to the age-old tactic of using mass media to define religious authority. But they are also undermining honest dialogue about the ever-changing nature of what it means to be a Jew in America. ~Katie Koch
Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid
By Melanie Rehak (GRS’94) Nonfiction (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
When her son Jules turned one, Rehak returned to work, not as a writer, but as an assistant in the kitchen of a small restaurant in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Her posting at the garde manger, or “keeper of the food,” station offered a crash course in the preserving and creative but urgent use of seemingly impossible food groupings. It was the beginning of her quest, recounted in a memoir both parental and culinary, to discover, as her inspiration M. F. K. Fisher once wrote, “the gastronomical me.”
With a mixture of humor, reverence, irreverence, and a hunger both literal and metaphorical, Rehak gives us a less angst-driven Julie and Julia … and Jules. Along with missives, from the cautionary to the celebratory, of foodie scribes Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Wendell Berry, it is toddler Jules, the picky kid of the title, who spurs his mother to intrepid adventures with foodstuffs that must be dug from the earth, hauled in from rough seas, slaughtered, or left to curdle.
Rehak does not know how to educate her son’s virgin palate. She wants him to enjoy and respect food, but at the book’s start the only way the exhausted mother can get the boy to eat is to scatter Cheerios around the kitchen floor and heave a sigh of relief each time he crawls toward one and pops it in his mouth. With this and other cheerful confessions, recipes, and pitch-perfect descriptions of culinary grunt work, Rehak is a pleasant and likable companion. You’ve got to love a woman who compares butchering a duck (“Things will be slippery … You will feel as if you’re wrestling with someone in oil.”) with trimming a one-year-old’s fingernails (“Things will be slippery … You could make the wrong cut.”).
But Rehak grows less squeamish by the day, and soon develops a sturdy appreciation for all food sources, including meat, or as chefs put it, “the animals.” Visiting a Vermont farm cooperative, she’s surprised that she “felt no revulsion at the sight of the blood-streaked animals hanging by their heels in that claustrophobic space, brushing up against the bright produce; they belonged there, after all.” Gradually, Rehak’s good-natured curiosity and zest for delicious, wholesome sustenance places her firmly in the club of Pollan et al — the joyful foodie, at peace with what is on her, and her picky kid’s, plate. ~SS
Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death
By Zoe FitzGerald Carter (CAS’83) Nonfiction (Simon & Schuster)
Carter’s engaging memoir begins with a call from her seventy-five-year-old mother announcing that she is ready to end her life and requires her daughter’s help to do it. Having lived with Parkinson’s disease for two decades, the feisty, still glamorous Margaret sets in motion events that test her three daughters’ emotional endurance and loyalties.
Like King Lear’s Cordelia, Zoe, the youngest, is the “good daughter,” and we mature with her in a series of unsentimental flashbacks, including memories of childhood rivalries as well as the slow, painful death of her charismatic, philandering father from brain cancer: “Almost as if the doctors had lasered away the great, blustering edifice of his personality, leaving a sweet and gentle man I barely recognized but immediately loved: the father of my dreams.”
Margaret exhibits no such shift; she remains steadfastly herself — witty, obstinate, and intent on enlisting her children in a foolproof strategy to release her once and for all from her pain and fatigue. Leaving her husband and daughters on the West Coast for the brewing storm surrounding her dying mother in Washington, D.C., Carter reflects on her mother’s ability to torment, shame, and perhaps manipulate her. The whole family is in for an emotional roller-coaster ride as Margaret grows more enthralled with choreographing her own death. There is a darkly funny passage about Bud, a “caring friend” from the Hemlock Society, who exudes creepy enthusiasm.
At the end, her mother, or more accurately her mother’s body, seems reluctant to die. She lingers long enough for her children and grandchildren to sit beside her, sing to her, reminisce with her, and ultimately to understand her yearning for peace.
“After all those months of discussion, the false starts and failed attempts,” writes Carter, “my proud, determined mother had died on her own terms, grace and dignity intact.” ~SS
Prefabulous + Sustainable: Building and Customizing an Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home
By Sheri Koones (SED’70) Nonfiction (Abrams)
In his foreword to Koones’s handsome, informative book, Robert Redford notes that “the defense of our environment is crucial,” and that the book offers inspiration and options for creating homes that will “bring balance to our future.” If the words “prefab house” conjure images of sterile, boxy structures or cloying faux country cottages, Koones dispels them. The book opens up a world of homes that are not only spacious, serene, whimsical, and harmonious with their surroundings, but are at the cutting edge of energy-efficient design.
The green design touches described here venture beyond the obvious and would inspire anyone planning sustainable construction or renovations to an existing home. One house, built of forms that fit together like Legos, contains bathroom flooring of a durable, nonflammable rubber made in a process using little water and no heat. An artist’s studio boasts a façade of zinc-coated galvanized steel panels with insulating rock wool cores made from slag — waste from iron smelting. With frequent sidebars about innovative materials, the book features an intriguing range of designs, from a straw house to a cairn cottage to a contemporary farmhouse and an Eco Urban dwelling. Throughout the attractive photo spreads of sweeping interiors, artful design details, raw building sites, and prefab construction in progress, Koones offers up practical energy-conservation tips and builders’ wisdom. In addition to mouthwatering portraits of completed and lushly landscaped prefab homes, there are also sequences of Tyvek-swathed modules awaiting refinements. The overall effect for even the disbelieving reader of hunkering down with Prefabulous + Sustainable makes one feel, “I can do this.” ~SS