Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

You Can’t Get Manure from Sacred Cows

January 4, 2011

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Press

When Katie Couric televised her own colonoscopy to encourage early detection of colon cancer, it worked. Suddenly, people in late middle age found themselves having to answer to their children and friends as to the state of their bowels. The incidence of colonoscopies increased as death rates for the cancer decreased. Perhaps we need some celebrities to take up the case for the product of colons: manure. In the circles I run in, Gene Logsdon passes for a celebrity, but maybe we could get some extra lift if we recruited Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. They might appeal to a different sort of audience than a curmudgeonly old farmer from Ohio.

With Logsdon, you don’t get a lot of sentimental prose about the uplifting feeling of holding sweet-smelling fully composted manure in your palm. No, he gets right down to business. He tells you where to get your animals to dump, how you handle a pitchfork, and for that matter the right kind of pitchfork to use. He doesn’t skip past the stage where the manure stinks to high heaven, he just helps you get through it.

By talking about pitchforks, I’ve already lost the policy wonks. They will tell us that the only way we can manage manure to save humanity is to build giant anaerobic digesters that will harvest the methane from the septic lagoons of factory farms. Logsdon argues convincingly and at times mockingly otherwise, pointing out that such farms are not only an abomination from many moral and environmental perspectives, but that in the long run they are not economically viable.

One of his favorite hobbies is attacking conventional wisdom as espoused by the talking heads. If agri-business considers something essential, he’s bound to show how it’s really an unsustainable fad. However, refuting the arguments of agribusiness is just a side track, the main line of the book is reserved for explaining how he believes manure management does work. He is confident that eventually everyone else will figure out what doesn’t work. (more…)


Excavating Emily

July 24, 2010

Emily’s Ghost:
A Novel of the Bronte Sisters
Denise Giardina
W. W. Norton, 2009

Denise Giardina’s mastery of meaningful writing once more comes to bear in her latest effort, Emily’s Ghost: A Novel of the Bronte Sisters. The story she weaves is so vivid and compelling that the reader must take pains to remember that she has produced it almost whole cloth from her imagination. Though the setting is convincingly placed in Victorian era Yorkshire, this is fiction, not history.

The novel begins with Emily Brontë breaking the news to her father that she is dying of consumption. She insists this fact be kept secret in order to avoid useless treatments that would take her away from her beloved home and moors. With this opening scene, Emily’s ghost does indeed dominate the book even as we are brought back in time to follow her childhood and few adult years.

The Brontë siblings are six motherless children at the start of the novel, taking comfort in each other and in the imaginary worlds they create. Emily also takes comfort from the ghosts that visit to tell her about their earthly passions. Soon, however, the two oldest sisters die within months of each other from consumption. The remaining children are raised indulgently by their clergy father. Charlotte is an ambitious and opinionated girl who longs to rid herself of her hometown backwater. Branwell is an artist who squanders his modest talent by wallowing in drink and laudanum. Emily is absorbed by her animals and her inner world, completely ill at ease in a parlor. Anne is virtuous and industrious, taking on one governess gig after another to help with the family finances.

Enter William Weightman, Mr. Brontë’s new curate. He comes to the Yorkshire town of Haworth because of a deep spiritual calling tied to his political sympathies. He supports the Chartists, who endorse a shockingly radical platform including civil rights for non-propertied men and a secret ballot. (more…)

America’s Nightmare

July 4, 2010

Shadow Tag
Louise Erdrich
Harper, 2010

Louise Erdrich’s novels often show us that things are not what they seem. In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse the priest in a small Ojibwe community is secretly a woman. In other novels, people who seem to be enemies are in fact bound together by the closest of bonds. Often, these secret truths serve to delight the reader, to inspire us to believe that there is a hidden beauty beneath everything we see on the surface. In Shadow Tag, however, the reverse is the case: a seemingly happy couple are in reality the bane of each other’s existence. Their three children are coming apart at the seams.

Irene America helps launch her husband Gil’s artistic career by endlessly posing in whatever position and with whatever props he desires. By the time the book opens, he is that rare breed: a painter who makes a very good living. Irene is still sitting for portraits, but she now openly despises Gil.

Gil hits the children and his wife, but doesn’t believe this ought to keep them from being happy.  He tries everything he can think of (and his imagination for this sort of thing is not great) to make the children and especially Irene happy.  Meanwhile Irene realizes he is reading her diary and torments him by entering false lurid accounts of sexual encounters with other men and anything else she can think of to hurt him. She hopes to make him hate her enough that he will ask her to leave. Until that can happen, she will drink away her life. And her children’s lives. (more…)

Ravenous Reading

May 12, 2010

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 2009

When a book has garnered its author the Nobel Prize in Literature, what more can be said by a little blogger like me? Obviously, it’s a good book. The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other most illustrious bodies have delivered well-researched and knowledgeable reviews of this historical novel. I will now write a review from the ground that I suspect most of my readers occupy.  With no slight intended toward my discerning audience, I bet that most of you find 16th century English history to be a confusing mess.  I can never keep track of who was dethroning and beheading whom, and whether the Scots were involved.  I know the bit about Henry having lots of wives, though I couldn’t say just how many.  I know it caused an awful row with the Pope.  So it was that I was well into Wolf Hall before I realized that the protagonist Thomas Cromwell must have been a real person. Don’t confuse him with Oliver, who came much later.

Part of what makes this novel work is that it’s a little like Sesame Street, those innocent of knowledge can enjoy it on one level, while the scholars (the grown-ups) can appreciate all the references and plot lines that blow right by the rest of us.  The story follows Thomas Cromwell, a lowly son of a blacksmith who makes his improbable way to the inner council of King Henry VIII, just as the monarch is determined to prove that his two-and-a-half decades of marriage to Katherine of Aragon never really occurred. Since they didn’t occur, he ought to be free to marry Anne Boleyn. Accomplishing this, however, takes the better part of another decade, and still fails to produce the male heir Henry so desperately desires. The reader (even this one!) knows that Anne will lose her head on trumped up charges and additional marriages will ensue. The characters, however, give about 50/50 odds to Anne, and position themselves as best they can.

Mantel juxtaposes the positioning, the intrigues, and the hypocrisy at court with the tumult of the truly religious. A renegade priest has been translating the Bible into English so that all may read it. Those who are caught doing so are tortured and burned. Their friends and family persist nonetheless in such reading. Luther’s bold new version of religion threatens to spill beyond Germany, where Christian communes are taking over cities. In the English countryside,  convents and monasteries house both saintly sacrifice and vile misdeeds. It’s hard to say how things will shake out. Such tumult, in turn, serves to strengthen Henry’s resolve that a male heir must be legitimately got in order to unify and indeed preserve the nation when his reign ends. (more…)

Leave the Light on for The Latehomecomer

March 5, 2010

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir
Kao Kalia Yang
Coffee House Press, 274 pages

How many worlds are contained on one planet? Kao Kalia Yang’s moving memoir begins in 1975 in the jungles of Laos. There, the Hmong families that fought on the side of the United States in “The Secret War” are hunted down by the new Communist government.  Between the war and the subsequent slaughter, barely a third of the Hmong survive to travel to the world of refugee camps in Thailand and elsewhere. Of those, fewer still obtain the necessary medical and bureaucratic clearances required to traverse to the world of the United States or Europe.

Hmong memory stretches back before these worlds to a time when they lived in villages in the Laos mountains, and before that to when they resided in China.  Yang’s vision also extends forward to a world where human rights are respected across the globe.

Yang has rendered the journey among all these worlds in prose that transport the reader as well. At times, she uses seemingly small occurrences to hint at the unfathomable depths of the Hmong experience.  After the family cross the treacherous Mekong River, the tattered group straggle along a Thai road, where a farmer tosses some old clothes to Yang’s father. Quoting her mother, Yang writes:

“I never thought I would see clothes thrown at my husband,” she says, looking at the floor, as if all the years had not erased the memory. “When he picked the clothes off the ground and tried to wipe the dirt away, I could not look.”

This incident itself pales in comparison to the murders, the hunger and the sickness the family undergo, but speaks volumes about the ability to withstand much so long as one can retain one’s dignity.

Yet she does not downplay the terrible impact (more…)

Eclectic, Trashy, and Classy

December 21, 2009

Mostly Shorts
Arbutus Cunningham

I recently had the good fortune to run into an acquaintance from Southern Indiana. I was in St. Paul for a meeting and saw a promotion for a show featuring storyteller Arbutus Cunningham, so I stayed in town that night to see her.  She was kind enough to gift me her latest CD, Mostly Shorts.  This concludes the full disclosure section of this review and I will now focus my attention on suggesting you pick up this CD for yourself.

If this collection of short stories has any flaw, it is that there is no apparent overarching idea tying them together.  But I have to say that I rather like flitting from the really big rat that winds up in the washing machine to the turbulent marriage between Winter and Summer, then coming back to Indiana for some thirsty pachyderms after settling in for a concert on the great ship Titanic.  At least, that’s the order I most recently got when I put the tracks on shuffle.

Cunningham can ratchet up a scene in short order, such as when a grandmother in “Trashy” takes up her son’s gun to call down the town banker, insisting he make good on her husband’s municipal bonds. “Come on down and take what you got coming to you. You know what you done,” she hollers.  Someone brings her grown son to the scene.  “I am trying to put the fear of God into him,” she tells her child.  He replies evenly, “I feel certain you have accomplished that.” The narrator has already warned that we would be exposed to the place “where trashy meets temerity,” and I was not disappointed.

The king of these stories is “Icarus,” a heartbreaking tale that brings the Greek myth home by demystifying it. No, there were not feathers, she tells us.  (more…)

Stars: They’re Not So Much Like Us

November 10, 2009

I’ll Scream Later
Marlee Matlin and Betsy Sharkey
Simon & Schuster, 323 pages


I love biographies—but apparently not enough to appreciate the genre of celebrity autobiographies.  My decision to read Marlee   Matlin’s I’ll Scream Later was based on absurdities, I now realize. Allow me to enumerate them.

First, I fell for that ridiculous notion that if you really like an actor, you will probably really like the person.  Matlin brings to the screen a kind of intensity that reminds me of Liz Taylor.  Fierce, passionate, independent—she even managed to breathe some life into the atrocious writing of the L-Word. She is best known for her debut performance as the Deaf young woman Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God.  Just nineteen when she was recruited for the role, she became the youngest person to win an Oscar. She’s gone on to a successful life-long acting career in film and television.  In the process, she’s helped elevate society’s understanding that Deaf people are as capable as anyone else to work, live, love.  She must be great, right?  She certainly is, as she tells us over and over again in her autobiography. Everyone thinks she is so beautiful, funny, down to earth, and a wonderful actress with a marvelous body.  She’s happy to quote the nobodies she grew up with, but prefers to tell us what people like Rob Lowe, Billy Joel, and Lauren Bacall think.  They all love—just love!—Marlee. Of course, we do have to feel sorry for her because in spite of all this, she isn’t rich.  One moment she explains how hard it is to make ends meet, the next minute she’s describing how she flew in a designer to make a special gown for her. Her parents, too, struggled to buy her car after flashy car.  Poor impoverished Marlee. (more…)

Review: Essential History

October 12, 2009

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
Douglas A. Blackmon
Random House, 468 pages

Anyone with the slightest interest in the history of the United States ought to read Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of how slavery was re-established in the South shortly after the end of Reconstruction. Steel companies, mining operations, large farms, and turpentine producers all purchased thousands of Black prisoners over the course of decades. The men (and some women) did the most dangerous work with virtually nothing in the way of rations or medical care. Mortality was high and fortunes were made.

For the heinous crimes of vagrancy, obscene language, or drunkenness, a man could easily disappear for years under the custody of business ventures. In fact, he could easily be worked to death or die of any of the many diseases rampant in the work camp or simply be murdered. Whenever a greater supply of cheap labor was required, the county could usually be counted on to find as many lawbreakers as a company needed. After all, even though they sold the prisoners cheaply, the county (or state) could make a fair amount of money in sheer volume of sales.

One of the most common practices to enslave an African-American was to ask someone to swear out a complaint against him. Sometimes a particular man would be singled out by request of profiteer, other times the authorities would just pick up anyone who was handy. A judge would levy a fine and court fees that they defendant couldn’t pay. By prearrangement, a white broker would then step up and offer to pay those costs if the defendant would work off the “loan.” The broker would take custody of the prisoner and sell him to a mining operation or farmer or whomever he happened to supply. In order to make a profit, he charged more for the man than he originally paid, and this profit margin was now added to the prisoners supposed debt, as was the cost of food, clothing, shackles, bedding, or anything that the overseer saw fit to claim as an expense.

Federal attorney Warren Reese, the son of a Confederate colonel, tried to expose and end the practice in a series of trials starting in 1903. Slave holders argued variably that they had never held anyone against their will, that the people they held were treated very well, that holding them didn’t amount to slavery, and that slavery had never been made illegal under federal statute. The slave trade continued.

Though his wording is sometimes awkward, Blackmon walks the reader through his methodical research and points out again and again that this re-enslavement was more than a crime, it affected history. In other words, it affects us today. It affected the way industry evolved in the south, and consequently in the north. It affected Black Americans’ and white-led corporations’ respective abilities to earn, to save, and to prosper. It hampered free labors’ ability to form unions, and it prolonged the near-slave conditions of tenant farming. This is not a side story of American history, it is essential history.

Review: The Wright Stuff

October 4, 2009

Blood Ties & Brown Liquor
Sean Hill
University of Georgia Press, 82 pages

I don’t follow poetry.  In fact, I read so little of it that I hesitate to publish this review of Sean Hill’s marvelous Blood Ties & Brown Liquor.  I am not qualified to offer up a critique of structure, cadence, or any of poetry’s numerous other essentials.  But I can say that in the ten days since I have obtained my copy of Hill’s book, I have dog-eared more pages than not. (Full disclosure: after attending Hill’s public reading as part of the Sustainable Literature Series in Rice Lake, I had the privilege of tagging along with a small group who joined him for a drink.)

The 41 poems of Blood Ties & Brown Liquor are tied together by the fictional Wright family tree.  Silas Wright (1907-1976) plays the principal role, though his prominence is brought forth so subtly that a reader could find oneself well into the book before understanding that the poems and the family are patterned around him.

Hill’s care in historical research adds richness throughout the work, as when Silas’s progenitors meet and part in the hours between dusk and dawn, each a slave on separate farms.  The narrator in “Milledgeville Aubade 1831” tells us how her parting lover’s “tin badge shines on his homespun shirt in this early light/precious as silver, his freedom, his travel pass/his way back to me.”  Tin badges—issued to indicate a slave was away from home on lawful business, such as being on loan to another farmer—remind us of the bureaucratic methods by which oppression is maintained, but also opens the possibility that love can harness bureaucracy for its own ends.

Four generations later, Silas is raised in that same Milledgeville. His brother Benny “handsome, red-brown like rust on a hoe” leaves the farm for the Great War and returns with empty pockets and “Empty promises from a brother, emptied simply/without volition.” Surely we have all emptied promises in the same fashion, and felt the sting when on the receiving end.  From Benny’s frustrated dreams to Silas’s frustrated love affair so heartbreakingly if cryptically described in “A Draft 1927,” one can easily find the points of connection between the Wright family and one’s own.

Not all lines intersect, however.  The Wright family history presents many points for which my own experience has no connection.  In 1946, one of my grandfathers was building up a farm with his 10 children in a community of other recent European immigrants. My other grandfather was living the rowdy life of an oil rig worker, leaving his wife to raise three children while he followed the latest boom.  But on July 25, 1946, one lynching in Monroe, Georgia, claimed the lives of four African Americans.  Hill forces us to consider not just the emotional impact of the crimes, but the practical implications, which I certainly never had to consider. An insurance salesman explains:

Silas, you might not be here come April.

Being alive is enough to get you killed.
Did you hear about them folks up in Monroe?
If they hang you from a tree, you’ll need a will.

Throughout Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, Hill’s language is so tightly controlled and artfully crafted that I suspect I will be puzzling out meanings for years to come.  One image only sounds an off note to me.  Aunt Flo comes to visit, and this doesn’t appear to be a metaphor for what women reading this blog will think it is.  Is it possible Hill doesn’t know that a visit from Aunt Flo is a euphemism for menstruation? Elements of “Aunt Flo and Uncle Phineas” do suggest a pre-coming-of-age, but the narrator appears to be too young to be on the verge of the physicality of womanhood.  I will probably eventually figure out that Hill does, in fact, know just what he’s doing with this metaphor.  (Any readers out there, feel free to enlighten me.)

Hill now resides in Bemidji, Minnesota.  I can only hope that this means he will return to the area for additional readings.

Review: Hamlet Meets Lad of Sunnybrook

September 29, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski

Harper Collins, 562 pages

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has generated considerable enthusiasm among literature lovers in these parts.  It’s not every day that a New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club pick is set in one’s back yard, after all.  At least, not if one lives in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

Perhaps if I had been more attentive to plot summary than to the buzz the novel has been creating, I would have realized that this is not the book for me.  I hadn’t understood that the characters in Edgar Sawtelle’s life can be summarized thus: Cast of Hamlet meets cast of Lad of Sunnybrook.  If I were more of a dog person or less of a Hamlet person, maybe this could have worked for me.

The title character is a fourteen-year-old only child who is congenitally mute.  He is the third generation of Sawtelles to breed a new kind of dog—one that is extraordinary in the art of companionship.  Wroblewski paints a compelling picture of Edgar’s tranquil, if somewhat bland, home life.  We can feel how much he loves his parents, the dogs, the land, the routine of all these things together.  Just in case we can’t feel it, however, Wroblewski reminds us that, “He loved ordinary things, ordinary days, ordinary work.”  In general, the reader is not trusted to figure things out for themselves in this narrative.

We do not have to guess whether Edgar—the Hamlet of the novel—has lost his faculties.  We know he hasn’t, though his precocious good sense is more than offset by the senselessness of so much death and drama all around. Calamity seems to happen primarily to facilitate the Shakespearean plot line and to give Edgar a reason to do something different once in awhile.  After one tragedy he starts to work harder (with the dogs), after another he sleeps in a hay mow (with the dogs), one more and he wanders in the woods for awhile (with the dogs), and so forth (with the dogs).

This works for a lot of people.  The clerk who sold me the book assured me I wouldn’t put it down once I started it. Others who have seen me carrying the novel have spontaneously gushed.  Clearly, I am missing something that speaks to thousands of readers.  If you have read this book and enjoyed it, I would love for you to comment with your thoughts regarding the aspects of this work that  I’m failing to appreciate.