Category Archives: books

A Book Instead of a Quilt

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This amazing book caught my interest with the first paragraph, and that without the ‘in medias res’ beginning. Oh there was back story, but the actual plot began in Chapter 1 with two girls stealing fruit.

The pace is leisurely for the first two thirds, then speeds up, the style descriptive and immediate. There were few characters, though towns and other activities were implied. The characters were well developed with flaws and virtues–all but one, who had no redeeming qualities.

Much of the book was about ideas never stated (the Orchardist himself, Jane and Della, sometimes Caroline Middey, though she was the most likely to speak) or about inability to speak (Clee). Angeline was more the one who wanted to know than one not communicating. Each had their own type of isolation, though there were also relationships.

The novel deals with aging, birth, the growing up of children, and the diminished abilities of the elderly, always matter of factly, sometimes understated. Never heavy handed philosophizing.

This is a rare book that remains excellent through the ending. (view spoiler)

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Reading Instead of Sewing, Again

Facts & Fabrications-Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects 20 Blocks First-Person AccountsFacts & Fabrications-Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects 20 Blocks First-Person Accounts by Barbara Brackman

The history is in summary form, but there are endnotes with further sources.

The book opens with a brief discussion of myth Vs. historical method. This is followed by an abbreviated history of slavery from the beginning of the slave trade to emancipation and migration. Although I am fairly familiar with the topic (having read The Great Migration, I learned some new detail (the migration to the plains). And the quotations from diaries and WPA recorded oral histories added an important dimension.

Brackman links each stage of the history to a quilt block by the name of the block, a story telling method she links with the 20th century. The idea is to create a mnemonic for remembering the history.

The block patterns and quilt layouts are clearly explained and illustrated, but she refers readers to other how-to books for basic quilting instructions. She also includes suggestions for adapting the history and sewing to children (in formal and informal settings)  and includes possible discussion questions.

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Reading about Race

Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of RaceWaking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I appreciated reading this meditation on growing personal awareness of whiteness as a race, not as neutral or a norm. It is not an easy lesson to learn, and Irving shares her missteps as well as her successes.

Sometimes books on interracial communication leave me fearful of saying anything at all. Irving answers that fear by speaking of the need to get over ourselves, to get over needing to be seen as a “good person” or a “good anti-racist,” but to be willing to be vulnerable.

Irving admits that her white culture could be different from that of other readers due to differences in social class. And while much of what she describes rings true to me and I admit white privilege, there are some networking advantages she had that were not available to me. Those differences do not negate her message that we need to own our privilege and see its flip side in privilege withheld from people of color. And I can identify with the dominant white cultural dictum to avoid conflict, hence avoid discussion. Yep, I was raised like that.

Irving’s book is not about white do-goodism; in fact that is one of the stages she went through on her way. Nor is it about diversity training. Rather it is about recognizing and confronting systemic racism and our place in it.

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An Important Book: Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought that I had thought all the necessary questions about end-of-life decisions, and I had thought many. But Gawande opens up new questions for evaluating those issues.

Gawande also opens up new ways to think about dealing with debilitating changes forced by disease or age. He offers a critique of traditional nursing homes, of what “assisted living” has become, and of medical practice based more on procedures than persons. His illustrations with case studies–some showing failure, others showing success–take the book beyond theory to readable.

Gawande challenges the narrow focus on safety and extending life and replaces it with concern for quality of life. He notes that people making quality-of-life decisions for patients often think in terms of what they, themselves, want, not what the patient would want. He questions the Maslow hierarchy’s application to all ages and stages. “Freedom to be the author of our lives” within whatever circumstances we are dealt becomes primary. He offers discussion questions for medical personnel and family to use to understand what the patient sees as desirable quality of life, then urges discussion of ways to accomplish it.

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585 Pages Later

You might have noticed that I’ve not been posting much of my own quilting. I’ve been reading to make up for the time spent last month quilting for the show.

I highly recommend this book.

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The novel tells of Ifemeu and Obinze, their lives in Nigeria, US, and UK. Along with them are many other well developed characters, major and minor. A few who made short appearances were two-dimensional. We learn many ways to be Nigerian and American through the characters, but none of them existed only to be illustrations.

I enjoyed all 580+ pages, and was in suspense till the very end as to the conclusion. And I would have found it a satisfying read if it had ended in two of the three ways I’d anticipated, tolerable for the third. And every page was necessary to get to that conclusion.

The narrative movement was not chronological, though there was a clear timeline to the present section. The back story appeared more thematically as it related to the present story. The bulk of the novel was back story.

The social commentary was well handled, never controlling the narrative, appearing often through Ifemelu’s blog–first through subject lines, then through actual entries. Other appearances through conversations of Ifemelu and her friends. Always natural and appropriate to the context. An outsider’s view on US race issues was revealing as were observations on gender roles in both US and Nigeria.

The style is worth remarking. Vivid descriptions help evoke an unfamiliar world. Images, such as “yet there was cement in her soul” (7) and “the air wrinkling between them”(338) evoke the interior of the characters and conversations.

It leads me to want to read her other works.

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A Very Unusual Novel

Geek LoveGeek Love by Katherine Dunn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had to look up “geek” because it surely didn’t mean the detailed interest of, say, a computer geek. So I learned the carnival meaning. Luckily the really gross and bloody part occurred only briefly at the beginning. The next oddity was the father deciding to produce his own freak show for the carnival (based on his seeing horticultural variety at the International Test Rose Garden). The mother dutifully took drugs to alter her offspring. Their living children were four: Arty with fins for arms and legs; Elly and Iphy, the Siamese twins; Oly, the albino, hunchbacked, dwarf narrator; and Chick the youngest, with his special powers.

Had it not been a group read, I might have stopped there. However, I remembered a comment of a professor about other novels with “grotesques”: What could the author say through them that couldn’t be said through more average characters? I decided to read a bit more through that frame. Then the next chapter captured my attention with its narrative strategy of jumping into the future with Oly and her daughter Miranda. Several events are revealed that make a reader wonder how they happened. That same strategy is used a few more times, like a carrot to keep one reading. For the first two thirds of the book, the pacing was very effective. Then the notes of a reporter/participant were introduced, and while they provided important information that Oly, the narrator, couldn’t have known, they dragged the pace considerably. Also the very ending of the book seemed to take too long.

I have not yet answered the What-could-be-said question. First hypothesis, something about disability issues. Did not hold up. Second hypothesis, something about minorities. The carnival provided a sort of ghetto where deformities were normal; however, the carnival was dependent on the money of the norms buying tickets. Oly didn’t feel odd till she no longer lived in the carnival setting.

One group member, who read an interview with the author,  learned she is an environmentalist and is anti-war. Perhaps the father’s manipulation is an extreme of the various pollutants in our atmosphere, food, and water. And there was one paragraph in the reporter’s notes where Arty ponders how people could criticize his followers who are maimed by choice and not criticize war with the injuries it produces. Maybe. And is it really choice when there is cult-like power in the leader and manipulation? I feel the need to think more on the followers’ willingness to endure amputation and what it might say about other things we readers may be willing to give up and for what.

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Book Time: The Sympathizer

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The setting is the end of the Vietnam war; the main character tells us early on that he belongs to the North, but works under cover with the South.

Presented as a spy novel, it is, but it isn’t the thriller one might expect. It is more an exploration of character, of times, and of the interaction between them. It has philosophical moments that are entirely in character and not intrusive, thoughts on being of two minds, on representation, and on “nothing.” The latter was interesting, but I am not sure how seriously to take it. The former makes me think that if I were still teaching, I might join this book with How to Be Both in a unit.

For me the theme of Who-Gets-to-Represent-Us? enters with the chapters about a movie script and its shooting. However, that was a ways into the novel, so I might reread to see if I missed its actual beginning. When the movie chapters appeared, they seemed an interruption, but gradually they were woven into the whole.

The plot was slow, as character explorations tend to be, slow in a good sense. There were moments where action was faster paced and it was a page turner. There was a nice rhythm between the two. We are told early on that the narration is really a “confession” to a “commandant,” so we keep wondering what the narrator did to get himself into that position. We also expect, and get, some torture scenes. They feel really long while reading them, but don’t take a large percentage of pages.

Some of the characters have names. Some don’t, but rather are identified by position and sometimes affect: “the crapulent major,” “the congressman,” “the affectless lieutenant.” It would be worth a second read to look for a pattern of who gets named and who doesn’t. It isn’t wholly major/minor characters. It doesn’t create stock characters. It may relate to the degree in intimacy with the narrator, but I’m not ready to commit to that.

It is a novel worth reading once to see how it ends; it is worth rereading to ferret out deeper meaning.

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