Review: Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, by Oren Harman

36722975[1]I was so completely enchanted by this book at the beginning that there were times when I found myself holding my breath, tears rising in my eyes. That’s how beautiful it was.  And then suddenly, Harman finished his myth-making and appeared to be giving us a bibliography.  Disappointed, I pushed the book away for a couple of weeks.

But I wanted to finish and I’m glad I did because the second half of the book wasn’t so much a bibliography (the citations are thick, though) as an examination of the truth behind his mythologies of evolution.  And I think that’s where the problem lies; the gear shift is so dramatic that I got intellectual whiplash from it.  Had the structure of the book been more integrated between the myth and the science, it might well have been a little less magical, but it probably would have kept me reading straight through.

So I don’t like the structure, but boy I love Harman’s myths, and I enjoy his science writing as well.  And I’m warning potential readers about this because I really do think you should read it. I just think you should be prepared.


Review: The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein

37941885[1]I have been, mistakenly, calling this a graphic novel, but it is more properly a graphic biography. While there are certainly fictionalized interactions, the story itself is the life of Hannah Arendt, philosopher and “virulent truth teller.” She wrote the seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism after living through the rise of Hitler in Germany, escaping the round-up of Jews (and Communists, and dissidents, all of which Hannah was) and finally finding sanctuary in New York. Arendt, who has reason to know, coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” and possibly a truer thing has never been said about that human drive.

I’ve bookmarked probably a dozen pages in this book, and that’s me being conservative because nearly every page has something to remember, to chew on, to weave into our consciousness of the world.  Consider Arendts musing on totalitarianism and the pluraity of truth:

…it is precisely this force, the facts of natality and plurality, that totalitarianism is designed to smother. So they claim to know the truth, but instead of one monolithic all-knowing truth… this is more what freedom looks like, a million billion truths, acted out in public, with every passing second. Messy? You bet. But consider the alternative.

and this:

Before Totalitarian leaders can fit reality to their lies, their message is an unrelenting contempt for facts. They live by the belief that fact depends entirely on the power of the man who makes it up. As fire lives on oxygen, the oxygen of Totalitarianism is untruth.

Sound familiar?

As for virulent truth-telling, Arendt was pilloried for calling out Jewish leaders for urging their communities to play nice and not confront the Nazis.  She was called a victim blamer, but she saw clearly how the attempts at civility and compromise simply allowed the Fascists to grow stronger and consolidate power, and doomed Jews.  Yes, that could well have happened if they’d made noise and fought back, but it could well have changed things too.  What we do know is that civility didn’t work with the Nazis.

If you’re not familiar with Arendt and her work, this is a wonderful introduction, though I warn you it’s often heavy going.  So is Arendt.  I have yet to finish The Origins of Totalitarianism in spite of my best intentions.  But given the world we live in now, she is a writer and philosopher who needs to be read and understood.

Reviews: Oh lord, I’m so behind…

For reasons which are too complicated to get into here, I am way behind on a lot of things, including both reviewing and reading.  So I’m going to do one catch-all review of some of the things I finished recently, but don’t feel require extensive commentary.

37939132[1]First up, Love & Estrogen  by Samantha Allen — A lovely account of a trans woman falling in love as she transitions.  Also, Everybody Loves Kamau! by W. Kamau Bell — 40208221[1]A memoir of how Bell, host of United Shades of America, fell in love with his wife, Melissa, and then had to win over her Sicilian grandfather, who had reservations about Bell’s skin color.  Both of these are non-fiction and part of the Amazon The Real Thing series. They were free to borrow for Amazon Prime members. They’re very human accounts of how the authors feel their way to finding a place in the world, in a family, in someone’s heart. I reviewed Boyfriends of Dorothy earlier in the month, another in the series, and would like to have given separate reviews to these as well, but things just didn’t turn out that way.

25372807[1].jpgAll the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders — I suspect this one deserves its own review, but much as I enjoyed it, I just don’t have that much to say about it. It’s one of those books where everyone is just slightly off-kilter, and working through their own issues while trying to save the world. One of the themes here is science vs magic, and I felt the questions it raised were pretty well resolved by the end.

36477795[1]If They Come for Us  by Fatimah Asghar — Navigating femaleness in America is hard enough without the added burden of brown skin, and a repressive cultural background that tells young women things like, your pubic hair is too thick and offends god.  Cut it.  Body shaming is a multi-cultural thing after all.  And Fatimah Asghar, orphaned young, has to navigate not only her extended family, but also American culture, issues not only of race but of sexuality, religion, and camping out at The Old Country Buffet while her family makes the most of the all-you-can-eat policy.

Here we arrived at the beginning of lunch
hour & stayed until dinner approached
until they made us leave. Here we learned
how to be American & say:
we got the money
we’re here to stay.

This is an extraordinary collection of poetry, deeply felt, and often raw, exploring the violence done by and to human beings, as well as the joy of humanity.

35756859[1]Woodstock 1969: The Lasting Impact of the Counterculture by Jason Laure — If you didn’t live through the sixties, and you don’t really know about 60s counterculture, then this book may prove to be a good starting point.  The photos are wonderful, the text is like a primer of 60s culture.  But in spite of being subtitled, “The Lasting Impact of the Counter Culture,” it really doesn’t give the reader the long view, or contextualize how the shock waves of the 60s are still felt today.  Nice coffee table book for fans of Woodstock though.

Now on to those about which I have a bit more to say…




Review: Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers (Audible Audio) by Nick Offerman

25604744[1]Yes, I admit it, I love Nick Offerman.  I didn’t at first, not when all I knew was early Ron Swanson before I understood the character, and while I was conflating him with the actor who portrayed him.  But then Ron grew on me, and I came to understand Nick’s work in a larger sense, and now virtually everything of his I see or read makes him dearer to me.

While Gumption does have a personal slant to some degree, it’s not autobiographical like Paddle Your Own Canoe. Rather, it’s a highly personal, utterly subjective look at Americans who Offerman believes had/have gumption, a trait that I think he identifies as a very American one. He begins with George Washington (of course) and it’s an interesting and amusing profile, but the chapter on James Madison is one of the more informative ones and should be a must-read for Civics classes. (Do schools even still teach Civics?  Sometimes it seems as if that went by the wayside not long after I graduated from high school.)

Later chapters are populated with the likes of Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of Central Park), Frederick Douglass, Wendell Berry, and Willie Nelson among many other heroes in Offerman’s pantheon. In each case he discusses why these people should be included, and again, in many cases the personal trumps the objective, though he makes good cases for everyone.

I came away from this book with a long reading list, which is the ideal outcome for a book like this, at least in my opinion.  I want to know more about Olmstead, I’ve begun reading a Michael Pollen book, and am enjoying the heck out of it, I’m listening to Willie Nelson again with new appreciation.

Not everyone is going to find Offerman as endearing as I do. He’s more liberal than not, and that puts a lot of backs up (not that he cares) and he is a practical man who understands human frailty. I love the guy, weird as he often seems. Or maybe because he seems kind of odd.  I like odd. I was raised with odd.

Give it a shot.  If you can, listen to the audiobook which is read by Nick to get the full force of his personality. If you’re like me, he’ll have you giggling almost immediately, and laughing out loud often.

Review: Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10) by Agatha Christie

853510[1]Wow, I am way behind in my reviews. And in my reading, really.  I have a stack of ARCs to get through and next to no interest in any of them right now.  I decided on a reread of the Christie because it’s an old friend and I wanted something I didn’t have to think about too much. I thought I’d read and reviewed it last year, but it seems I didn’t.

I’m guessing that most people know the story. Murder on a train, too many clues, Poirot briefly stumped, but he comes through with the solution in the end.  It’s a well-constructed mystery, but I’d expect no less from Christie. The characters are reasonably interesting, though given the size of the cast — a dozen passengers, train crew, Poirot, murder victim, etc. — giving any of them too much of an internal life would be pointless and it would bog down the novel. It’s not necessary either because the thread that ties all of them together has enough emotional resonance for everyone and then some.

I’m not sure what to say about it that hasn’t been said, and probably more aptly by other reviewers, but I can tell you it’s a fast, fun read that, even if you know the solution, will hold your interest.  And if you don’t?  It’ll keep you guessing.

Review: The Revolution Handbook by Alice Skinner

37811286[1].jpgI’m a fan of Wreck this Journal (I actually have two copies of it.) so I was predisposed to enjoy this format which is aimed at helping people — mainly young people, I think, but about that more in a minute — to make their political ideas more concrete, and to help them find a way to act on those ideas and beliefs.

In a format that relies on the reader to create the final book with written, drawn, cut-and-pasted information, it gives prompts, and expects us to think about what those prompts mean to us. They range from a bit silly: “Stick in the dumbest headline from this week.” or “Sew Trump’s mouth shut” (Where you actually stitch the page with a needle and thread. Talk about cathartic!) to deeply important: “Check your privilege. List the ways you’ve had advantages in life.” But across the board it is intended to make us think about our attitudes, our lives, and how to enact our political beliefs. Possibly it will help to change some of those beliefs, if the work is done with honesty. And why shouldn’t it be? You’re the only one who has to see what you’ve written/drawn.

The reason why it feels aimed more at young people — and anything that gets them more politically active is a winner in my book — is that there’s a lot of social media exercises included. I’m not going to try to say that older people aren’t into social media, that would be nonsense. But items like listing ways to say no to parents, and teachers, and other authority figures are clearly intended more for teens. But again, anything that motivates political and social awareness is okay in my book.

That isn’t to say that it’s only for young people. I’m having a great time with it, dealing with it the way I do with Wreck this Journal, as a kind of steam vent, a way to work through problems or conundrums. So if you feel you want to become more politically aware and active, but simply don’t know how to start or what to focus on, give this little book a shot. It may help you gain a sense of where you want to spend your political energy. And who knows? You may find out things about yourself you didn’t know.

Following the Road Map

Every once in a while I step back from my reading and ask myself, “How did I get here?” and then I try to trace the route I took back to the source of my interest in whatever it is I’m reading at the time. That’s essentially the story of my life, one long road trip through subject after subject, author after author, finding something, no matter how small, that demands I investigate. I don’t think I’ve ever been sorry to have followed my curiosity.  Sometimes it dead ends, but I’m always glad I went exploring, and I always feel I’ve come away with something of value.

One of the best examples I can think of is the time, many many years ago — in the early 70s — I watched a PBS program about Colette, author of Gigi and the Cheri books. It was a dramatization of My Mother’s House and Sido, two of her autobiographical works. Of course I was captivated, and had to read these things for myself, so I took myself downtown to Kroch’s and Brentano’s to find something about Colette. I found a volume that contained both books (I still own it.) and a couple of pieces of her fiction, all of which I decided I needed. (I had a lot more disposable income back then.)

41G4288XRFL._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgWhile I was staring at the shelf with biographies of people whose names began with “Co” I saw a book which, for some reason, called to me. It was the Francis Steegmuller bio of Jean Cocteau.  I had no idea who Cocteau was at that moment, but I picked up the  book and looked at it, discovered that he had been a friend of Colette’s and added it to my stack.

All that summer I read about Colette, but I obsessed over

Poster by Cocteau
Cocteau. I read his books, read books about him, watched his movies, when I could find them, sought out his artwork. If I hadn’t seen that PBS program and been interested in Colette, I’d never have found one of my greatest interests. And I still love them both.  They led me to, among others, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf (Who in turn led me to Charles Aznavour and the music of Yves Montand. Who knew?), Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and the Ballets Russe, and Gertrude Stein and her circle.

Another example is my love for the Bloomsbury group, home to Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, E.M. ForsterJohn Maynard Keynes, and a raft of other famous people who wrote, made art and music, were critics, economists, psychoanalysts, and just damn interesting people. And I found them, thanks to a book by David Garnett:  Carrington: Letters and Extracts from Her Diaries.

Dora Carrington, a young artist who, in spite of a troubled sexual identity of her own, and the fact that he was as openly homosexual as was possible in those days, lived for years with Lytton Strachey, probably not as a lover, but certainly as a soul-mate. (There is some suggestion that the relationship was consummated, but it remains uncertain.) On the eve of her wedding to another man, he wrote to her:

“… you do know very well that I love you as something more than a friend, you angelic creature, whose goodness to me has made me happy for years, and whose presence in my life has been and always will be, one of the most important things in my life …”

“Lytton Strachey–The New Biography” by Michael Holroyd, 1994

My copy looks just this beaten up and well loved. I have cherished it for nearly half a century.
When he died, Carrington committed suicide.  Yes, it sounds all desperate and tragic, but somehow, reading Carrington’s letters and diaries is much more a celebration of the life she lived, the friends she made, the people she loved. She was a wonderfully engaging correspondent, and if she was half so charming in person, I can see why people loved her. I love her. And it’s to her I owe my interest in the Bloomsburys.

I could recount dozens of other journeys that began with a single book or even just an article that piqued my interest, but what I really want to say is this: Follow your instincts.  Follow your interests. I’m blessed to have so many friends who are so intensely curious about the world that they are always finding new things, and they are good about sharing them. There is so much in the world to know, how could any journey be a wrong one?

Recipes: Butter Bean Hummus, Lentil Pate, Liptauer Cheese

81MeJERw9xL._SL1500_[1].jpgIt’s nearly summer and time for finger food that doesn’t require a lot of cooking.  Here are three recipes I use a lot. I’m posting them here because I just spent 20 minutes searching for them in Evernote only to realize I’d never posted them there.  I’d put them on Facebook, but I thought they deserved a special home.  But first a warning: I am a seat-of-my-pants cook, and the recipes reflect that. If you need exact measurements, you’re never going to make any of my recipes.  Sorry. (Not sorry, really.)

Butter Bean Hummus

This is about as easy as it gets.  You need two regular size cans of butter beans. I do tend to use Goya, they’re often on sale at my grocery store, and they’re good. Toss them into a food processor, and add oil and lemon juice until it’s smooth, then garlic, and whatever other seasoning you like (I used Trader Joe’s new onion salt) and a touch of regular salt all to taste. 

Yup that’s it.  No tahini, nothing heavily flavored.  This is a super delicate hummus, and I’m thinking it’ll be fantastic with chopped cukes and tomatoes, and some olives on the side.

Walter Slezak
Liptauer Cheese

I first heard of liptauer from Walter Slezak’s My Stomach Goes Traveling, and have loved it ever since. This recipe changes from batch to batch depending on what I have in the house. Bottom line is that you need butter and some kind of curd cheese.  I’ve used farmer’s cheese and found it a bit dry, and cottage cheese and found it a bit runny. These days I’ll also add cream cheese to the mix which does tend to make it more spreadable.

So, let your butter and cheese — equal parts of each, approximately — come to room temperature, and put them in your food processor until they’re completely combined.  Add sweet Hungarian paprika to taste (I like a lot) and turn it out into a bowl.  Then add caraway seeds to taste.  You don’t want to add them with the food processor because you’ll vaporize them.

At this point you can add whatever else takes your fancy. Some people like capers or some other tart condiment like chopped pickles.  I prefer onions, either some of the TJ’s onion shake, or chopped scallions or chives. Diced shallots would also be terrific, in my opinion. Clearly this is very much a what-do-I-feel-like-adding-this-time? recipe.

And if you don’t know Slezak’s work, you should.  He was marvelous!

trader-joe-lentils[1].jpgLentil Pate

This stuff tastes weirdly like chopped chicken liver even though it’s absolutely vegan. I really love the stuff, and trowel it onto Triscuits every chance I get. This was a TJ’s heavy recipe, but I’ve given alternatives where I could.

1 package cooked lentils from TJ’s (That’s about a pound of lentils if you’re cooking your own.)
1/2 C TJ’s mixed nut butter  (I think it’s mostly the walnuts that add the meaty-ness to this pate, so if you roast some walnuts and process them you’ll probably get a very similar flavor.)
1 T garlic-ginger paste (you can get this in Asian markets or in the Asian food aisle of a well-stocked grocery store or you can make your own with fresh ginger and fresh garlic minced.)
About 2 T of olive oil or enough to make it into a nice paste.
Lemon juice to taste
A very generous few sprinkles of onion salt/powder (I like the new TJ’s alium shake.)
A bit of salt if you use onion powder

Process in food processor. Taste, swoon. It makes a killer sandwich spread with some cream cheese, or tomatoes (raw or roasted) Or maybe thin sliced scallions?

Yes, I do try to feed the people I like.  Let me know if you try any of these.

Review: Boyfriends of Dorothy (The Real Thing collection) by Wednesday Martin

40210623[1]Oh boy, did I identify with this story.  I was the girl with the gay boyfriends, I made all the same mistakes, and I came out of the experience with a much better sense of self than many of my friends who never hung out with gay men.  Why?  Because I felt seen. I felt listened to.  Straight boys never ever made me feel that way.  With them I was supposed to not be the smart one, not be the one who had something to say.  The experience taught me which men were worth cultivating and which weren’t, and as a result I have come to know a lot of great straight men.

So as I listened to Martin read her short story I found myself nodding and smiling.  Oh yeah, I would think, I so get that.  If you were the girl with the gay boyfriends, you’ll probably love this story too.  And if you weren’t… I don’t know how you’ll feel about it.  Maybe you’ll feel as if you missed something (IMO, you did, but that’s just me.)  Or maybe you’ll feel uneasy, as if that’s not the way things ought to be.  (If so, that’s kind of sad.  Again, just in my opinion.)

Either way, the story is short and charming, and I think it’s well worth your time and consideration.

Review: Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg

11854849[1]For some reason I had the impression that Falling Angel would prove to be a relatively light hearted noir fantasy. Set in 1959 New York, it’s the story of a hard boiled detective named Harry Angel, who is hired to find a singer who may or may not be dead.  Johnny Favorite made a name for himself before the war, but was drafted and badly injured, and from there pretty much disappeared from view. A former mentor wants to know if he’s alive or dead because, as he explains to Angel, Johnny owes him something.

At this point, I pretty much figured I knew what that something was, and realized that the story was taking a somewhat darker turn than I’d imagined it would.  If Angel isn’t always the good guy, he’s never really much worse than morally gray, or at least that’s how it seems. We’re on his side even if we don’t always like what he’s doing (or not doing in a few cases.) We follow him through New York’s music scene as he interviews the musicians who worked with Favorite years earlier, and learn that nobody liked the guy very much, seemingly for good reason. From there, Angel finds his way into a group of Voodoo practitioners, and finally into a black mass.

People Angel talks to die, in some cases horribly, and the police think he’s involved. The man he’s working for seems to be all tangled up with the magical community in the city. He falls in love with a young woman with ties to Favorite, and yes, he does ultimately find out what happened to the singer. It took me a while to process what was going on, though when I did I felt a sense of horrified pleasure that I’d been utterly fooled about the direction in which the story was headed.

Bottom line? I got a kick out of the story.  It’s a page-turner, it’s unexpected, it made my skin crawl. How can you ask for better?