The Casual Vacancy

Author: J.K. Rowling

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2012

Laura read it: August 2014


I am pleased to introduce Laura Byers for my first guest review. It was originally published on Levi & Laura.

As the UK’s best-selling author of our time, J.K. Rowling knew there would be high expectations for her first non-children’s novel. Luckily, she met them. I was impressed at her talent for creating a not-so-idyllic small town and it’s colorful cast of characters that made this one a page-turner.

The Casual Vacancy takes place in the English village of Pagford, where gossip is the way of life. The sudden death of the beloved Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town’s local council, leaves the citizens to recover and the vacant political seat to be filled. In the process, members of the community turn against each other and a war ensues. It’s not just prospective council members who are battling it out though. Married couples, parents and children, in-laws, old friends–it seems everyone has a bone to pick with somebody.

The story is told from several different perspectives. From the self-declared “First Citizens” right down to the people of The Fields – the rundown, drug-ridden area just outside of Pagford. The anglophile in me was satisfied with Rowling’s writings of the English countryside, cobblestone and flower pots, and quaint village shops. However, I also appreciated the brutally honest representations of each main character. Indeed no person is flawless, and it is refreshing in a way. You’ll find yourself disgusted, ashamed, and embarrassed for these folks, and at the same time you will root for each one of their selfish causes. You may even find that you relate to some of these characters in more ways than one.

Unlike her previous novels, there are no supernatural elements in the story. There are however plenty of coming-of-age plot lines which are all well worth the read. Rowling also nailed each adult character (the drug-addicted mother and her rebellious teenage daughter, the lonely 40-something salesman, the unsatisfied wives) with such precision that you wonder how many personal experiences she pulls from. If you’re a Harry Potter fan looking for a grown-up Rowling novel, you’ve found it. Get ready for a darkly entertaining novel.

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Posted by on September 5, 2014 in Novels


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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Author: Karen Russell

Type: Fiction, short stories

Full title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories

Published: 2013

I read it: August 2014


I was struck by the title story when I first read it in one of the Best American Short Stories collections, and always wanted to return to the warm Italian glow of that tale. It was one I had catalogued in my mind as “vampire tale; unique” which are fun to collect (I Am Legend sits up on that shelf as well). This take is more melancholy than dangerous, but still keeps the legendary feel of the creatures.

Although I liked Swamplandia! I was eager to get back to the Karen Russell I knew from shorter fiction. The collection only has eight stories, though a few are long enough that the whole comes in at well over 200 pages. Several of the stories go for the outright strange, relying on electric premises the reader must trust will hold true. “Reeling for the Empire” tells of women coerced into slave labor to the point they become physical silkworms, until one of them ponders a rebellious act. It’s physical and dreamlike. Even stranger is “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which select former U.S. presidents are reincarnated into the bodies of horses housed in neighboring stalls–yet who retain the minds and desires of the actual presidents themselves. It’s amusing and surprisingly works (and has to be fun for the author, like similar tales of imagined conversations between presidents).

Each story has something of the fantastical; the differences come down to amount and execution. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is an unfortunate misstep, more of a sketch than a story. It’s not clear what the tailgating is truly for, or whether or not the human characters live in our timeline or some imagined future. A bummer, really, because I do appreciate any Antarctic setting. Another story that falls a little flat is “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.” It’s a somewhat straightforward tale of teenage wandering, first love, and familial frustration. Russell wants to do something important with the seagulls, but we are left with scraps.

The best pieces maintain a strong undercurrent of otherworldly tension. “The New Veterans” is a capable interpretation of what regret and memory means to a modern soldier come home, and the masseuse who attempts to help him recover. It drags a bit but is full of life and depth. An even better example of the author’s skill comes through in “Proving Up,” set amidst early American homesteading. The life of a family struggling to create an identity around house and home in the harsh Midwest feels alien yet tangible, with good drama that edges on horror.

The best story may be the last, because it has that delicate Russell balance of grounded and unreal. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is the story you came for: it grabs from the first unsettling descriptions of a scarecrow, as told through the remembrances of a high school boy. The murky humanity explored throughout is fodder for a fall day, and does for scarecrows what “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” does for its title creatures. These two stories are great bookends to a strange, colorful, challenging collection of stories, which is what I had hoped to experience. I’m confident Karen Russell will continue to come into her own.

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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Short stories


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The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013

Author: Dave Eggers (series editor), Walter Mosley (introduction)

Type: Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, comics, poetry, humor (anthology)

Part of series: The Best American Nonrequired Reading (#12)

Published: 2013

I read it: August 2014


Nonrequired reading. You know I love this series. Let’s get to the good stuff:

  • Right out the gate, the first entry in the front section is the Best American American Poem by Sherman Alexie, called “Crazy Horse Boulevard.” It’s a sort of free-assocation meditation on an older brother and Indian life, filled with bits like “I’ve just decided that the only structure that should bear anybody’s name is a gravestone” or,

I’m guessing there are four kids in each of my sons’ classes who haven’t been immunized against whooping cough, diphtheria, and polio. If my sons, Indian as they are, contract whooping cough, diphtheria, or polio from those organic, free-range white children and die, will it be legal for me to scalp and slaughter their white parents?

  • Another front section winner is the Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation’s Founding Fathers. Here, Teddy Wayne presents Thomas Jefferson as bringing up some hypotheticals in regards to how the Second Amendment might not be infallible should the country change (“let us suggest that man, with his infinite intellect, invents a series of machines, inter-connected with one another, as if caught in a net, to purchase goods”). His countrymen Madison and Hamilton play devil’s advocate to these scenarios, and the short sketch ends with the men deciding that no, their amendment could never be infallible because obviously people of the future will only grow more rational and wise.

These collections always collect moving and illuminating non-fiction pieces. Here are some standouts:

  • “Hannah and Andrew” by Pamela Colloff. This one is a heartwrencher, about a (probably) wrongfully convicted mother who went through the tragedy of losing an adoptive son in a home accident. Steel yourself before proceeding.
  • “Cuba’s New Now,” by Cynthia Gorney, I had read last year in National Geographic and remembered it being good then. It’s still good on the re-read, because the author places you so colorfully in the middle of modern Cuba. She outlines the nation’s hopes and woes, centering on the story of 35 year-old man who is contemplating crossing to America by boat when his homeland lets him down.
  • “The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador” by Karen Russell. It’s as intriguing as it sounds, a breathless portrait of a professional matador whose passion runs deep. Russell crafts essays like she does her short stories–tangible, human, wondrous.
  • Lastly, I can’t say enough about Kiese Laymon’s “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance.” It’s a collection of straightforward autobiographical statements of a young man growing up around crime and poverty, and the continued obstacles he faces while trying to pull himself up and out. With the state of America today, this one sears.

I find myself struggling to remember the details of a lot of the fiction stories (“You like fiction books? I like fiction books!”). All are passable, but fewer made an impact that I would like.

  • Two are akin in their slanted takes of odd American workplace weariness. “Snake River Gorge” by Alexander Maksik tells of a tense, shady operation that youth are running in Idaho while Jim Gavin’s “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror” is a bit funnier and more directly relatable (“Bobby heard the word functionality repeated over and over”).
  • Andrew Tonkovich’s “Falling” has a great premise: a wealthy, intellectually curious, devout Christian figure runs a retreat whose mission is to test/prove the nugget about “there are no atheists in foxholes.” He puts up atheists in comfortable spaces for a determined amount of time, in hopes that some may have conversion experiences. Things get weird quickly, and the tale turns into something that could be graceful or maddening depending on the tastes of the individual reader. It’s risky but in a memorable way.
  • Huge respect for Jennifer Egan and her very original “Black Box.” I think I read that this story was born from Twitter, which makes sense given its page layout where single sentences are stacked in narrow columns of black boxes (I get it now). The protagonist is a woman on a covert mission and it’s fascinating to be inside her head while she does her thankless yet adventurous job. The small cogs work like poetry: “Recall that the mythical feats you loved to read about as a child are puny beside the actual accomplishments of human beings on earth.” The whole machine is a whirring success.

So ends another Nonrequired volume (and one of the fatter ones at that). This is Dave Eggers’ last as editor, but there is no mention of the series itself slowing down. Awesome. The new one will be out in no time.

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Posted by on August 22, 2014 in Comics, Essays, Humor, Poetry, Short stories


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The Girl in the Road

Author: Monica Byrne

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2014

I read it: August 2014

girl in the road

You will spend the entire book wondering who the girl in the road is, and the bland title is one of the only flaws in this unique work. (Even the snake on the cover serves a purpose, unlike other trendy covers that take a similar route.) This piece of speculative fiction is a road trip tale that feels entirely new, especially to this Western reader who finds all things Africa and India exotic and foreign.

Of the two main characters, twenty-ish Meena takes the slight lead as the central figure, who is jolted into a new path by situations that are not at first clear. Her road is a wonder of science called The Trail, a thin wave energy-harvesting bridge over the ocean made up of small sections, or “scales” (there’s that snake again). She attempts a pilgrimage from India to Ethiopia, a dangerous task for anyone, but especially for the rash. Thankfully the book’s science, which feels just real enough, is able to keep her outfitted with all the cool gizmos just such a traveler would need. A large part of the book’s intrigue is reading about how she survives both physically and psychologically.

On another continent, the even younger Mariama runs away from home and joins a small caravan headed toward Ethiopia with questionable goods. Her mind is fluid and her story unsettling because she is so helpless, yet wide-eyed with wonder, in a dangerous land. She meets a particular woman who plays a huge role in her life, and whose identity even crosses into Meena’s story (the novel neatly flips back and forth between the two protagonists). And here is where any hope of explaining plot breaks down, because so much of the action is interpreted as experienced by the reader. The girls/women get sucked into dreamlike states during some parts of their journey, which are classic Journey of the Hero tunnel material where the goal is to understand oneself and come out transformed. Realities rise and fall, things come apart then coalesce. The characters spiral toward that inevitable intersection.

The book is not always easy to experience because it largely asks, Where do we go from the point of trauma? It is intense and colorful and original, like a fever dream where all the character and place names have a tangible history. The breadth of cultures covered and topics touched on is a wonder. I had to read the book over the course of a few weeks, but I could see the value in shacking up with it for just a few days. It’s dense but rewarding, and the end seems to both cohere and explode simultaneously. Final plot details are debatable (though the author does have concrete answers of her own) yet, thankfully, the emotional questions opened up like wound are skillfully handled and explored, even if some are left unhealed.

Give this one a shot, and if you have the time, be sure to check out The Stake’s book club coverage. There’s an ocean to explore.

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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Novels


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Author: Andrea Kettenmann

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Published: 1996

I read it: July 2014


There is perhaps no other Mexican of recent history with greater renown than Diego Rivera. His partner in art/life/politics, Frida Kahlo, may come close. But this book makes a strong case that it was Rivera who made the most lasting impression on Mexican cultural identity.

It wasn’t always the case that Rivera was so attached to his home country. He was already past age twenty when he traveled extensively around Spain, France, Belgium and other European locales. Here he learned a wide range of painting styles, and the first chapters of the book offer an intriguing array of his experimentations in Cubism, Renaissance art, and others.

Another decade or so passed before Rivera returned to Mexico and became revitalized with a brand of nationalism, strongly informed by his Communist/Socialist political ideals. It was around this time when he claimed,

My style was born like a child, in a moment, with the difference that this birth took place at the end of a painful, 35-year gestation.

That style would be the Diego Rivera mural. The artist’s murals usually told stories of Mexico past and present, featuring an array of Indian/Aztec themes, sometimes idealized, which transition into narratives about the Spanish conquerors, and on into the industrial age. He often portrayed these times by symbolizing the struggle of common workers, often pissing someone off by making his works too political. He was at one time shunned by the Communist party for being too commercial, like when he started to do commission work in the United States, and then later rejected by certain American parties when he stood strong in the Communist ideals in his paintings.

Rivera was a complicated man, always intertwining art with politics, and his love life with his creative life. He had many wives and a few children, and seemed to live turbulently. He grounded himself in his love for Mexico and his version of its past. The pages of the book show off the elaborate natural scenes he created which illustrate his passion for how humans come from the earth and ultimately live off the land. A favorite of mine is the huge “Man, Controller of the Universe” (or “Man in the Time Machine”), painted for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. As with so many of his large works, it shows the collision of the natural past with technology, war, resistance, and time.

For a solid overview of Diego Rivera’s life and works, this volume does the job. I snagged it when I was assigned to represent an artist for Camp Quest Minnesota, and I think Rivera has a lot worth digging into.

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Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Non-fiction single subject


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Dad Is Fat

Author: Jim Gaffigan

Type: Fiction, non-fiction, humor, memoir

Published: 2013

I read it: July 2014

dad is fat

Why is Jim Gaffigan an appropriate author for a comedic memoir about parenting? Because he has five children and his family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in New York. The premise fits Gaffigan’s dry style particularly well. It’s also an exhausting premise when you consider what his life must be like, so instead of letting the idea of that reality overwhelm me, I read it with the “At least I only have one kid. Can you believe this guy?” mindset. This turned the book into breezy bedtime relief.

Each family is their own universe unto themselves, with various similarities and differences to other families. As such it’s a pleasure to read about Gaffigan’s stories of home birth, or religious services, or other things that I haven’t dealt with in my own parenting story. In fact, apart from the chapters on babies, there is a lot of yet-to-be explored territory for me, so some parts were more of a humorous warning guide.

Take for example reading about when my toddler will find out that the toilet paper roll is the best toy, or setting up playdates and having to “discover that the only thing that I have in common with that parent is that we have a kid the same age.” Gaffigan is often at his best when writing about food (the subject of his next book apparently) so the restaurant tales are great (I just don’t want to take my toddler to one ever), or when he describes lollipops as “flavored muzzles.”

There are parts that seem a bit overworn, such as the whole vibe of Gaffigan being a clueless caveman dad who is helpless before the weight of parenthood. As an explanation for how they survive, he lifts his wife up as a goddess of capability. Those might be accurate descriptions of the two, but they are not universal archetypes. On the flip side, it’s easy to see how he feels like a barely surviving shell of a person given that living situation. The parts about describing the layout of their apartment, how bedtime is managed, and what to do when potential renters are looking at the unit directly below theirs are among the best. It’s only at the end of the book that he tries to address the always-asked “Why so many?” question, about which he says the reasons generally seem “uninspiring and superficial” but will admit that “each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart.” It’s Gaffigan’s low-key way of saying, that’s just how it is, man. This is our family.

Overall, here is a quick, funny read about the life of a unique, modern dad. It’s one I bet only parents can appreciate (I know, I just typed those words–but they just seem so true), and one I will appreciate more as my own kid pulls me upward and onward to the next thing.

Thanks to Laura for getting me this one for Father’s Day. I don’t read comedy very often, but always enjoy it when I do. Much love.

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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Humor, Memoir


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Child Development

Author: Jean Mercer

Type: Non-fiction, essays

Full title: Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings

Published: 2009

I read it: June 2014

child development

This review was originally published on Levi & Laura.

When we brought Isaac home from the hospital, he had already been alive for more than a month. In his room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, we learned from the staff nurses how to give him basic care. Since he slept a lot, it was a regular thing to see the nurses alternate sleeping positions. Some afternoons we’d come in and see him swaddled tightly and resting on his back, while the next morning he might be laying on his stomach (without the swaddler), head turned to the side and comfortable.

At home, we quickly noticed that he liked sleeping on his stomach. He seemed to snuggle in sooner and his body was more contained. We made sure to keep any loose blankets out of the way. As the months went by, stomach-sleeping was his default mode. But we knew we were doing something supposedly wrong. When his pediatrician mentioned that after a while we could try putting him on his stomach instead of just his back, we kept our mouth shut. He’d already been sleeping on his stomach for months at that point.

There are a thousand and one pieces of advice about babies and kids. What to feed them, how to clothe them, how to soothe them (or not soothe them), when to lull them to sleep (or not), the best position for teaching them how to ride the dog like a small cowboy. In addition to personal advice, there is no lack of resources online or on the printed page. Where to start? It’s a gamble. We happened to latch onto The Happiest Baby on the Block and found it handy, even listing it in Our Top 10 Newborn Essentials. But as useful as we found the book’s techniques, it’s clear that the author has something to sell and is set in his ways. I even found out he is an “infants should sleep on their backs only” guy, even though the evidence for that idea is dubious.

Is there a way to sift through so-called evidence around parenting tactics? There is. It’s tough, and it takes scientific-based research. The answers are often messy or non-existent. Things are more complicated than we would like. But the effort is necessary, and thankfully some people are out there doing it. One person is Jean Mercer, who has painstakingly compiled a bunch of modern research about children, from newborns up through adolescents, with no product or name recognition at stake.

The book is filled with readable essays that distill research on a given topic. Because it’s so common for people to hear and repeat parenting items that may not be true, she titles each section with a concept that is a myth, mistake, misunderstanding, or has missing evidence. She then dives into the supporting evidence and research (or lack thereof). Here is a sampling of chapters:

  • Claim 7: Mothers care for their babies well because they have a maternal instinct.
  • Claim 13: A baby’s sleeping position can cause or prevent sudden infant death syndrome.
  • Claim 21: Having kids listen to Mozart makes them smart.
  • Claim 31: Children have different learning styles, depending on whether they are left brained or right brained.
  • Claim 36: Sugar is a major cause of hyperactive behavior.
  • Claim 44: High self-esteem makes children perform better in school.

Remember, those are the myths (or if not complete myths, then misunderstandings that need clarification). It takes some effort to set aside personal investment while going through these. Sometimes they are hard to process when we’ve always thought a certain claim to be true. Isn’t it weird to think that sugar itself does not make kids hyperactive? I know, it’s tricky to shake some of these. And admittedly, the research evidence presented to counter each claim is not an iron clad rebuttal–it just gets us more in the right direction. There is still plenty of gray area to go around, and Mercer does not shy from pointing this out. She also takes the opportunity to instruct about experimental methods and scientific thinking. The book is filled with phrases like the following:

  • “Statistical analysis of data can explain many things, but it alone cannot tell whether one factor caused another. The only way to determine causality is through experimental work that can control for confounded variables.”
  • “Because children develop at individual rates, one cannot use an exact chronological age to predict an effect, even if more information about the connection between age and outcome were known.”
  • “It would be a mistake to think that research has clearly answered questions on this topic.”
  • “Characteristics of groups of adults may not explain what they were like as children, and, discouragingly, characteristics of children may or may not predict who they will be in the future.”
  • “Empirical research, not simply speculation, is needed to help understand these possibilities.”
  • “There are often confounding variables at work, such as family income or level of parental education.”

That last point especially is mentioned again and again. So many times we are quick to judge a single individual choice or circumstance as having a powerful affect on the development of a child, when in actuality the larger factors such as economics, education, and home stability play a much greater role across the board. This book helps us take the blame off of parenting that falls short, and helps us recognize the bigger picture. Take the first claim I listed for example. There are risks to perpetuating this belief, because it “increases the chances that the public will punish and reject abusive mothers as inhuman–lacking in the normal instinctive makeup shared by other human beings.” Good parenting is learned, not magically bestowed upon new fathers and mothers.

This is the type of parenting partner you want on your side. An author who strives to be objective and has nothing more to sell than a collection of the latest scientific, evidence-based research. Someone who would not think twice of updating future editions when more pieces of truth are brought to light. She warns of how difficult it is to change someone’s mind, even if the evidence is presented clearly. And she mentions how the entire field of child development is still young, so we know frustratingly less than we would like to know.

Parenting is overwhelming, and a deluge of bad information does nothing but damage. On any given topic some websites might be right, some might be wrong. Our parents, siblings, and coworkers might be right, or they might be wrong, influenced by a claim that “involves a tiny portion of reality and logic, mixed with a large dose of fantasy.” The only thing we can do is hold up all claims to critical evaluation if we ever hope to pass on good parenting advice to the next generation.

Isaac continues to sleep on his stomach most nights. If solid research suggests it should be otherwise, we would be willing to change our habits. It’s all about admitting what we know and what we don’t know, and acknowledging that nothing is set in stone.

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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Essays


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