May 3, 2019

Book Review: Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso

by David Sedaris

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Essay, Humor
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Length: 272 pages
Published: May 29, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"David Sedaris returns with his most deeply personal and darkly hilarious book.

If you've ever laughed your way through David Sedaris's cheerfully misanthropic stories, you might think you know what you're getting with Calypso. You'd be wrong.

When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it's impossible to take a vacation from yourself.

With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Make no mistake: these stories are very, very funny--it's a book that can make you laugh 'til you snort, the way only family can. Sedaris's powers of observation have never been sharper, and his ability to shock readers into laughter unparalleled. But much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future.

This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumor joke. Calypso is simultaneously Sedaris's darkest and warmest book yet--and it just might be his very best."

Quote:

"Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave."

Excerpt:

"Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room. Some people get one by default when their kids leave home, and others, like me, eventually trade up and land a bigger house. “Follow me,” I now say. The room I lead our visitors to has not been hastily rearranged to accommodate them. It does not double as an office or weaving nook but exists for only one purpose. I have furnished it with a bed rather than a fold-out sofa, and against one wall, just like in a hotel, I’ve placed a luggage rack. The best feature, though, is its private bathroom.

'If you prefer a shower to a tub, I can put you upstairs in the second guest room,' I say. 'There’s a luggage rack up there as well.' I hear these words coming from my puppet-lined mouth and shiver with middle-aged satisfaction....

Three of my sisters visited us in Sussex the Christmas of 2012, so Gretchen and Amy took a guest room each. Hugh and I gave Lisa the master bedroom and moved next door to the converted stable I use as my office. One of the things he noted during their stay was that, with the exception of Amy and me, no one in my family ever says goodnight. Rather, they just leave the room—sometimes halfway through dinner—and reappear the following morning. My sisters were considered my guests, but because there was a group of them and they could easily entertain one another, I was more or less free to go about my business. Not that I didn’t spend time with them. In various pairings we went on walks and bike rides, but otherwise they sat in the living room talking, or gathered in the kitchen to study Hugh at the stove. I’d join them for a while and then explain that I had some work to do. This meant going next door to the stable, where I’d switch on my computer and turn to Google, thinking, I wonder what Russell Crowe is up to.

One of the reasons I’d invited these three over—had gone so far as to buy their tickets—was that this felt like a last hurrah. Except for Paul, who has no passport but tells me with great certainty that, according to an electrician he met on a job site, it is possible to buy one at the airport, we are all in our fifties now. Healthwise, we’ve been fortunate, but it’s just a matter of time before our luck runs out and one of us gets cancer. Then we’ll be picked off like figures at a shooting gallery, easy targets given the lives we’ve led."

My Book Review:

I've been a fan of David Sedaris since I first read his memoirs maybe a decade ago. He has a gift for telling the absolute, exposed truth about his life--the pain, the shame, the embarrassment, and the grief--with a gift for humor that's genuine and sincere.

With his last couple of books, I had felt (maybe mistakenly so) that Sedaris had drifted from his original voice, but to me Calypso perfectly recaptured what I was so drawn to at first: a brilliant ability to combine his confessions of the painful and the profound with irreverent humor that kept me laughing throughout the entire book. Actual laugh-out-loud humor, not just smirks or chuckles.

This collection of essays felt very unified: a journey through Sedaris's grief and guilt after the suicide of one of his sisters, and his deep desire to draw close to his remaining family members by recreating their childhood's seaside retreat. It is here, on the coast in their new vacation home, that Sedaris sorts through his political pains from the recent election, confesses his increasing obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and examines the ebbs and flows of his family relationships through the last few years.

His messages are thoughtful, unapologetically raw, and candid, but his gift for dealing with these emotions through laughter makes the experience such a joy for his reader.

If you've never read Sedaris before, yes, his narratives contain cursing and references to sex unsuitable to some audiences. That being said, Calypso was possibly my favorite of all of his books thus far--the deepest look into Sedaris's head and heart that audiences may have ever yet had.


March 25, 2019

Book Review: Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

 

Us Against You (Beartown #2)

by Fredrik Backman
translated by Neil Smith

Genres: Contemporary Fiction 
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 448 pages
Published: June 5, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"After everything that the citizens of Beartown have gone through, they are struck yet another blow when they hear that their beloved local hockey team will soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in Hed, take in that fact. Amidst the mounting tension between the two rivals, a surprising newcomer is handpicked to be Beartown’s new hockey coach.

Soon a new team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the enmity with Hed grows more and more acute.

As the big match approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt grows deeper. By the time the last game is finally played, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after all they’ve been through, the game they love can ever return to something simple and innocent."

Quote:

“The complicated thing about good and bad people alike is that most of us can be both at the same time.”

The first installment in the series

Excerpt:

"Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We'll end up saying that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy that it seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else....

People driving through say that Beartown doesn't live for anything but hockey, and some days they may be right. Sometimes people have to be allowed to have something to live for in order to survive everything else. We're not made, we're not greedy; say what you like about Beartown, but the people here are tough and hardworking. So we built a hockey team that was like us, that we could be proud of, because we weren't like you. When people from the big cities thought something seemed too hard, we just grinned and said, 'It's supposed to be hard.' Growing up here wasn't easy; that's why we did it, not you. We stood tall, no matter the weather, But then something happened, and we fell.

There’s a story about us before this one, and we’re always going to carry the guilt of that. Sometimes good people do terrible things in the belief that they’re trying to protect what they love. A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl. And we lost our way. A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him. Because that was easier, because if the girl was lying our lives could carry on as usual. When we found out the truth, we fell apart, taking the town with us. It’s easy to say that we should have done everything differently, but perhaps you wouldn’t have acted differently, either. If you’d been afraid, if you’d been forced to pick a side, if you’d known what you had to sacrifice. Perhaps you wouldn’t be as brave as you think. Perhaps you’re not as different from us as you hope.

This is the story of what happened afterward, from one summer to the following winter. It is about Beartown and the neighboring town of Hed, and how the rivalry between two hockey teams can grow into a mad struggle for money and power and survival. It is a story about hockey rinks and all the hearts that beat around them, about people and sports and how they sometimes take turns carrying each other. About us, people who dream and fight. Some of us will fall in love, others will be crushed; we’ll have good days and some very bad days. This town will rejoice, but it will also start to burn. There’s going to be a terrible bang."

My Book Review:

In the series' first installment, Beartown, readers meet the men and women that make up the die-hard hockey community of a small town struggling for its identity. Extremely powerful but also breathtakingly painful to read, it is the story of what happens when the hockey team's star player rapes the coach's daughter, and what happens when the community isn't willing to hear the truth. Both Beartown and its sequel, Us Against You, are very difficult to read: the language, sex, and violence make it hard to digest, but also very truthful to the violence in the world around us. Be advised these books are not for all readers--I absolutely love Fredrick Backman and at this point I'm either close to or have finished reading everything he's published thus far, but I'd be wary of recommending these  books to someone without first considering the impact of the triggers within them.

When starting Us Against You, I admittedly struggled with some repetition from Beartown during the first third. Having not read it very long ago, it was still freshly burned into my mind, but it's also part of Backman's narrative style to write cyclically, repeating the past as it evolves throughout the present.

After I got past the first-third of the novel, I was hooked. Backman has a true gift for characterization. I cared so much for Benji, Maya, Kira, Leo, Ana, Bobo, and Amat. Truly cared. My heart broke for each of them in individual ways. At the same time, though he wasn't exactly a villain in Beartown, I intensely despised Peter in this book for his inability to make one single, unselfish decision. I mean despised him. He was so frustrating. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and yell at him. This is the gift of good writing--it made me care deeply and feel like this fictional failure of a father was in actuality a real person.

Like Beartown, Us Against You is filled with the violence and tension within Beartown and its rival Hed in a way that felt very honest with its depiction of raw hatred and trauma. Backman doesn’t shortchange his readers with trite, happy endings when the truth is far more weighty, complicated, and heartbreaking. To me, his themes are greatly reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s novels and he’s definitely my current favorite author-in-translation.

If you've never read Backman before and you're looking for a place to start, I'd recommend A Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry. I love this Beartown series, but do feel that some audiences need to consider the trigger warning before diving in.


March 22, 2019

Book Spotlight - Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature

 

Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature:
Entangled Influence

by Trenton B. Olsen

Genres: Academic, History, Science, 19th-Century British Literature, Poetry 
Publisher: Routledge
Length: 194 pages
Published: November 30, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Official Book Summary:
"The influences of William Wordsworth’s writing and evolutionary theory—the nineteenth century’s two defining visions of nature—conflicted in the Victorian period. For Victorians, Wordsworthian nature was a caring source of inspiration and moral guidance, signaling humanity's divine origins and potential. Darwin’s nature, by contrast, appeared as an indifferent and amoral reminder of an evolutionary past that demanded participation in a brutal struggle for existence. Victorian authors like Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy grappled with these competing representations in their work. They turned to Wordsworth as an alternative or antidote to evolution, criticized and altered his poetry in response to Darwinism, and synthesized elements of each to propose their own modified theories. Darwin’s account of a material, evolutionary nature both threatened the Wordsworthian belief in nature’s transcendent value and made spiritual elevation seem more urgently necessary. Victorian authors used Wordsworth and Darwin to explore what form of transcendence, if any, could survive an evolutionary age, and reevaluated the purpose of literature in the process."

Author Bio:
"Trenton B. Olsen completed his PhD in English Literature at the University of Minnesota and is currently Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His work has appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, The George Eliot Review, and The Journal of Stevenson Studies. He received the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council Research Fellowship and the 2018 George Eliot Essay Prize."


Excerpt (from Chapter One):
"Darwinism raised fundamental questions about nature and its relation to human identity, origins, and morality. Wordsworth was inextricably associated with these issues, and his work took on new meaning and urgency in Darwin's wake. Victorians from orthodox Anglican ministers to agnostic scientists drew on Wordsworth to respond to evolutionary theory. Biologists T.H. Huxley and Ernst Haeckel used Wordsworth quotations as epigraphs to their scientific books and journals even as their religious opponents enlisted Wordsworth against evolution. John Campbell Shairp described Wordsworth's poetry as the 'surest antidote' against Darwinian theory, and a contributor to The Edinburgh Review read Wordsworth's poetry as 'a protest against belief in evolution from beneath.' For others, Wordsworth's writing was an anticipation of Darwinism rather than its antithesis.... Wordsworth's poetry and evolutionary theory were so interconnected that, for these Victorian authors [Arnold, Eliot, Stevenson, and Hardy], responding to Darwin required revisiting and rethinking Wordsworth. They tested the poet's ideas against Darwinism and vice versa in their writing both to determine which Wordsworthian principles could survive the new age and to resist those elements of evolutionary theory they were unwilling to accept" (Olsen 3-4).

Book Spotlight:
This book analyzes the influence Wordsworth's writings had on post-Darwininian Victorian authors. Over the course of five chapters, Olsen examines this dynamic, first establishing the connection in Chapter One: Wordsworth in the Age of Evolution, and then applying this framework to the works of four key Victorian writers: Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy. Olsen concludes by showing how their texts and reflection on Wordsworth's relationship to Darwin's findings moved toward the Modernist period. If you're a student or scholar of Victorian literature, interested in history or science, or a fan of Wordsworth's poetry, definitely consider checking out this new contribution to literary scholarship.

March 15, 2019

Book Review - Art and the Artist in Society

Finishing my series, here's another scholarly volume for which I've served as a contributing author. Details below! I hope to have more publications to share someday soon.


Art and the Artist in Society

Edited by José Jiménez-Justiniano, Elsa Luciano Feal, and Jane Elizabeth Alberdeston

Genres: Academic, Nonfiction, Art, History, Literary Scholarship
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Press
Length: 325 pages
Published: August 1, 2013
Purchase Links: Amazon, Cambridge Scholars

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (how can you not give your own book 5 stars?)

Official Book Summary:
"Art and Artist in Society is a compilation of essays that examine the nexus between artists, the art they create and society. These essays consider how art has changed its form and role both to accommodate newer trends and to fully participate in society. Divided into six thematic sections, the book examines the works of a diverse group of artists working in a range of art forms, such as writers Milan Kundera and Judith Ortiz Cofer, filmmakers Humberto Solás and Walter Salles, performers/photographer Daniel Joseph Martínez and feminist-activists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz. The analyses of the work of these artists and other artists offer readers an opportunity to explore a number of important issues in art today, such as the representation of the Other, the exploration of alternative sources of knowledge and the construction of the self. For the array of works it analyzes, this book offers fascinating insights into the art and the artists of the 20th and 21st centuries." 

Others' Reviews:
"Whether the issues revolve around ‘art for art’s sake’ in the writings of Baudelaire and Wilde, the ‘disgusting’ use of corporeal presences and excretions in body, action, installation, and performance art, or the trash, used or recycled materials of Richard Tuttle’s graphic creations, . . . [Art and the Artist in Society] lends itself to a recasting of multidisciplinary studies." – Dr. Lowell Fiet, University of Puerto Rico

“The collection immediately brings to mind . . . what it means to create seditious writings that trouble national governments as well artistic canons. Art and the Artist in Society covers similar ground – especially in the section that deals with art that meets uncomfortable and unfavorable public reception.” – Dr. Donette Francis, University of Miami 

My Contribution and Endorsement:
For this volume, I contributed the chapter titled "Rewriting Female Representations in Girl with a Pearl Earring & Girl in Hyacinth Blue: Historical Female Portraiture, Human Subjectivity, and Johannes Vermeer's Work." In the chapter, I examine these two novels which utilize Vermeer paintings in order to recast fictional women of the past in order to empower them with greater subjectivity than might be rendered in the original artwork. The volume is a great resource for scholars, art historians, or readers who are interested in how both art and artists have influenced literature during the last 120 years.


March 14, 2019

Book Review - Gender and Work by Sternadori & Prentice

Continuing my series, here is another book for which I've written a chapter. Thanks for checking it out!


Gender and Work:
Exploring Intersectionality, Resistance, and Identity

Edited by Miglena Sternadori and Carrie Prentice

Genres: Academic, Gender, History, Women's Literature
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Length: 279 pages
Published: May 1, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Cambridge Scholars

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (yes, I'm biased)

Official Book Summary:
"Recent years have witnessed growing scholarly interest in efforts to advance women’s work and in exploring the implicit obstacles to gender equity – such as the 'glass floor,' 'glass ceiling,' and 'glass walls' – that have persisted in most career fields. This interdisciplinary collection contributes to this new field of knowledge by curating scholarly essays and current research on gendered work environments and all the nuanced meanings of 'work' in the context of feminism and gender equality. The chapters represent some of the most outstanding papers presented at the Women and Gender Conference held at the University of South Dakota on April 9–10, 2015.

The unifying focus of this collection is on the work-related intersections of gender, race, and class, which are investigated through a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches. Some of the essays provide historical and literary contexts for contemporary issues. Others use social-scientific approaches to identify strategies for making the contemporary Western workplace more humane and inclusive to women and other disadvantaged members of society.

Advanced undergraduates and graduate students in women’s studies, sociology, history, and communication could use this book in courses that address the gendered workplace from an interdisciplinary perspective. Scholars from various disciplines interested in gender and work could also use the book as a reference and a guidepost for future research. Finally, this collection will be of interest to human resource professionals and other readers seeking to expand their perspectives on the gendered workplace."

About the Editors:
"Miglena Sternadori is an Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for undergraduate affairs in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. She was a member of the 'first class' of young journalists after the fall of Communism in her native Bulgaria. She worked as a journalist for seven years, including five as an investigative reporter. She has covered government and business, including the controversial Bulgarian privatization, and is an alumna of the Missouri School of Journalism, where she first arrived in 2000 on a scholarship for Eastern European journalists. Sternadori is the author of Mediated Eros: Sexual Scripts Within and Across Cultures (2015). She has published in Feminist Media Studies, Journal of Media Psychology, Women’s Studies in Communication, Newspaper Research Journal, Atlantic Journal of Communication, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Journal of Media Education, among others."

"Carolyn Prentice is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of South Dakota, where she has taught since earning her PhD in Communication from the University of Missouri–Columbia in 2005. She teaches a variety of courses including qualitative research, gender, theory, and family communication. She has published and presented a number of interpretive studies in family communication, and is currently conducting an interview study of latter-day hippies." 

My Contribution and Endorsement:
As you can see, this volume is an edited collection adapted from some of the graduate student papers presented at the 2015 Women and Gender Conference. Based off of my conference presentation, I contributed the chapter "The Intersection of L.T. Meade's Professional and Domestic Victorian Celebrity." In the chapter, I discuss how the prolific author of over 200 texts balanced writing, editing, and contributing in both the public and private sphere, and how she was represented by the media through magazine and newspaper interviews. If you're interested in issues of gender and work and the balance of public and private life, you should definitely check out this volume.



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