Archive for CLSC Books

CLSC Book Eleven: American Rust

It’s true that I drift towards working-class literature.  But, I also drift towards novels that take place in Pennsylvania.  Of course, with the nature of Pennsylvania’s working-class history — the two types often overlap.  American Rust is an example of this overlap.  This first novel by Philipp Meyer tells the story of Isaac English who is left to care for his aging father in an old Pennsylvania steel town in the Monongahela River valley.  Tragedy strikes when Isaac sets out to escape the decaying town, along with his friend, Billy Poe.

I read American Rust last year, and had mixed feelings about the book.  I re-read the novel this past week, and found that I still have the same mixed feelings.  I love how Meyer explores the physical landscape on this world — his details are sharp and authentic, so much so that I found his descriptions of decay lovely, and almost poetic. 

However, while I loved the landscape, I just couldn’t get into his characters.  It seemed that almost all of the characters were stereotypes: they simply fit into one of two categories of characters that fall into working-class fiction, especially working-class fiction that falls into dying small towns.  We have the tired, injured workers who are bitter about the past glory days of factory work, and who now drown themselves in beer and prescription drugs.  Then, we have the young, smart adults who flee from their background and never return, except reluctantly  to help family or friends left behind.  And certainly, these people do exist– they are very real characters.  Still, I would like to see a different type of character — one who stays behind out of choice to help, or perhaps one who leaves but willingly comes back to save what can be salvaged out of dying town.  I know those characters exist too.

Still, perhaps I’m being a bit unfair.  I love the work of Tawni O’Dell so much, that I was hoping for another Tawni — and Meyer’s style of writing is much different.  In spite of my mixed feelings about American Rust, I will look forward to Meyer’s future work.  (And I hear, there’s a movie of American Rust in the works…)


CLSC Book Ten: The Mighty Queens of Freeville

I’ve been saying that summer is the time for light reading, yet most of the books I have read the last few weeks have not been, what I would say, beach reading.  But I have to write that The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson fits into my fast and easy book category — and it’s a fun read.

Amy Dickinson’s book is not a novel, nor is it really a traditional memoir.  It’s a group of essays disguised as book chapters.  The book explores the life of a single mother (Dickinson, herself) after a divorce, and then uses various flashbacks of the author’s life to explore the relationship she has with other family members — most women, many single mothers who struggled to raise their families after the fathers were out of the family.

What I really enjoyed about this book was there was no bitterness or preaching. In fact, many of the chapters were downright funny!  The landscape of small town New York was also familiar to me — and I liked how the author made the choice to buy a house in her hometown, yet explore both life and career options in major cities.  In many ways, this book proves that one can got home again!

CLSC Book Nine: A Fierce Radiance

I liked Lauren Belfer’s first book, City of Light, so I was really looking forward to getting my hands on her second novel, A Fierce Radiance.  Lucky for me — the other day I was at my local library and I picked up a copy.  And while I can’t say that I enjoyed this book as much as City of Light, I can say it was an intriguing read.

A Fierce Radiance begins during the days that follow the attack on Pearl Harbor and takes the reader into the world of American medicine — more specifically the world of an experimental medicine called…penicillin! The main character is a woman named Claire Shipley, a single mother who is divorced in a time when divorce was taboo.  She is also a career woman, more specifically, a photographer for Life magazine, assigned to cover the breaking stories surrounding the new “miracle” drug of penicillin.

The story then escalates into a mystery when a renowned scientist is murdered, and Claire finds herself trapped in danger and confusion, especially when she reunites with her estranged father and falls in love with a doctor who is searching for the cure that could save millions of American soldiers’ lives.

While I didn’t especially enjoy the love story thrown into the book, I did learn a lot about this time period.  My father served in WW II and my mother was a teenager during the war.  So many things that happened in this novel echo stories my mother used to tell me.  When I finished the book, I couldn’t help think about how far we have come with American medicine.  And how far we have yet to go.

CLSC Book Eight: Hellhound on His Trail

I know that I said that summer is for light reading, but I wanted desperately to finish at least one CLSC book before the end of July, so I started Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides.  Sides’ book explores the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the history of this tumultuous time period.  I had prepared myself for a deep, thoughtful read — and I was right.  What I didn’t expect was that in many ways this book was a thriller.  I sat down to start the book and when I looked up I had read over 100 pages!

I was born in the 70’s — and somehow, when I was growing up, the 1960’s were always romanticized for me.  Perhaps it was because I grew up in a small, secluded town and the outside world, for the most part, remained outside.  I was given hippies and hearts and rainbows and the Beatles to represent the 60’s.  Of course, later I learned about the importance of this decade (and why there were hippies and hearts and rainbows etc…)  Sides’ book gave me more depth to both the time period and the cast of characters that were so important — besides Martin Luther King Jr., I learned about James Earl Ray, J. Edgar Hoover, Ramsey Clark (who I once heard speak a long time ago) and Coretta Scott King.  His book is a prime example of how authors should make history come alive for the reader.

Hampton Sides is new to me, and I was excited to learn that he is the author of many history books — all which are now on my reading list. Books I will try to tackle when the weather cools down and I feel like diving into heavy reading once again.

Chautauqua Musings

I’m in the middle of my mini-marathon of poetry workshops at Chautauqua.  I wish I had more time to write thoughtfully about what I am learning and what I am writing.  But I don’t.  This week I am working with poet Andrew Mulvania, and next week I will be the workshop assistant in the workshop taught by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.  I also have a stack of books that I want to read, including some new titles in the CLSC series  (The oldest continuous book club in America).  But many of  these books are pretty heavy reading and I’m not sure I want to dive into those pages right now!  Like I said before, isn’t summer the time for light reading?

CLSC Book Seven: The Lost City of Z

David Grann, the author of The Lost City of Z, spoke at Chautauqua this past week, and while most of his talk merely repeated what was already contained in his book, I really enjoyed the Q&A session afterwards.  It was obvious from the answers he gave the audience that he had completed a tremendous amount of research (which was apparent in his book, I suppose, but in some of his answers he mentioned research that was not in the book) and really knew his stuff.

The Lost City of Z is the story of explorer Percy Fawcett who ventured into the Amazon jungle in 1925 to find the mysterious City of Z, and then disappeared.   Search parties turned up with little or no answers.  Grann was able to intertwine two stories in this working of creative nonfiction/literary journalism.  First, there was Fawcett’s story, and then his own story of how he researched the famous explorer’s life and subsequent disappearance. Then, he describes his own journey into the Amazon.  The book is serious — but there’s also humor, and I have to confess that I re-read Grann’s book in preparation for his talk.  I actually read the book for the first time last spring.

I have always been fascinated about unknown locations — I live in a rural area of Pennsylvania and I still think there are many places left untouched by man (that’s a good thing!) Grann’s book reminds me of all the unknown places in the world — both of the past and the present.

CSLC Book Six: A Poetics of Hiroshima

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a brief presentation on William Heyen’s A Poetics of Hiroshima, a poetry collection that continues in the “Heyen tradition” of Holocaust study but also approaches other atrocities of the war, including the Hiroshima bombing.  This collection of poetry is part of Chautauqua’s book club selection for this summer.

It’s interesting but when the head of CSLC asked me to review A Poetics of Hiroshima, I really thought he meant review it — but then I found out that he wanted me to introduce the text to an audience who may not know a lot about poetry(even though they are readers — they belong to a book club, afterall).  To use the cliche’ — that’s a whole different ballgame and to be honest, a lot more fun than writing and presenting a more formal review.

Still, A Poetics of Hiroshima is a challenging read.  Heyen takes risks with form, and his mix of poetry and somewhat prosey verse may be confusing to some readers.  And of course, the subject of the atrocities of war is always hard to read.  All in all, I liked A Poetics of Hiroshima well enough — in fact, I went back to read several of Heyen’s earlier works, and it’s interesting to see the progression of his work. 

CLSC Book Five: Tastes Like Cuba

I live with a nonreader.  Correction.  Anthony does read — but it’s mostly comic books, since he is a serious comic book collector.  He also sometimes reads books on baseball and martial arts (his two other loves).  Still, I don’t think he has ever really understood the hundreds of books in my personal library and why it’s hard for me to let go of even a single book…

So, I am always trying to get him to read.  A month or so ago, I picked up the book, Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home by Eduardo Machado. Anthony is a professional cook, so he also glances through cookbooks on a regular basis, always looking for something new to try.  Machado’s memoir looked interesting to me.  Written as an autobiographical account from a Peter Pan kid (children who were flown from Cuba to the United States during the early 1960’s), Machado explores his world of exile from his homeland through stories of food and specific recipes.  I thought Anthony would be interested in the recipes — everything from Newspaper Soup to Swordfish Escabeche is included in the book’s chapters.  And I was right.  Anthony flipped through and read all the recipes.  But he didn’t read Machado’s actual memoir.

But I did. Fans of the Scrapper Poet know that I am a fan of the memoir, and I really enjoyed Tastes Like Cuba — mostly because the author did not come up with any earthshattering answer to the exile’s identity crisis in America.  Machado is charming and frank, and often very funny.  Because he is an actor (mostly stage), we get to see some insight into some famous actors (including Al Pacino and his role in Scarface).  

And who knows?  I bet in the near future, with Anthony’s help, I will actually get to taste one of these intriguing dishes found in the book!

CLSC Book Four: America’s Women

Snow, snow, and more snow.  So, I’ve been using my time to catch up on my reading.  America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines by Gail Collins was a perfect way to start out the new year.  I have to admit — I was a bit skeptical when I started reading this book.  I mean, can we really put the history of American women into a single book? (Even though the book is around 450 pages long?)  Still, I was impressed with how much ground that Collins was able to cover — she started with Eleanor Dare (the women who gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first European baby born in the colonies — that we know of…) and ended with a brief look at the 1970’s.  The book does read like a novel, so I never found that I was reading a history textbook.

Two disappointments:  Collins seems to skim over the importance of women in the labor movement.  She didn’t even mention the horrific Triangle Factory Fire.  While she never ignores class issues with American women (very important!), I felt like she could have talked a bit more about women’s labor movement.  (She did mention Mother Jones!)

Collins also stopped in the 70’s.  I barely remember the 70’s.  What has women’s role been since that decade?  This book was published 2003 — there was plenty of time for at least a few more thoughts..

But, all in all — a great read.  And like I mentioned before, a great way to start out the new year.



CLSC Book Three: Year of Wonders

I haven’t posted about my CLSC books since October, only because I haven’t had time to even look at the CLSC reading list, let alone actually read one of the books.  But now I’m catching up a bit with my reading with Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, a novel about a small little village in England that quarantined itself during a plague year.  The novel is based loosely on the historical Eyam, and because I like history, I thought I would like to book.  I did.  In spite of the gruesome details and the graphic violence found in the pages, I found drawn to the story and the main character of Anna, who witnesses the demise of her surroundings and records both the best and worst of those around her.  I have read works by Brooks before (including the wonderful and insightful nonfiction book, Nine Parts of Desire), but Year of Wonders makes me want to look up the read of this author’s fiction.

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