Archives for the month of: December, 2013

Now that Christmas is over, I’ve been catching up on the 2013 “Best of” lists that I’ve been bookmarking throughout December. People love to groan at these lists, but I really like them—I’m always curious about what I missed during the year, and recommendations from trusted sources are a great thing.

I always start with NPR’s recommendations. This year they’ve created the Book Concierge, which is a bit different from their usual approach (lists!). The new format is great, though. It makes it easy to browse through a variety of titles across genres or to focus on your favorite genres.

I also really appreciated the lists at Brain Pickings. This blog by Maria Popova is chock full of fascinating ideas and wonderful books and profound advice from people who’ve lived amazing lives. Maria posted about her favorite 13 books of 2013 here. Do explore her blog, though, because she’s also posted lists of favorites within specific genres or types of books.

And one of my other favorite sources is Publisher’s Weekly. From that link you can also access the lists from previous years. Naturally, the New York Times and The New Yorker and Huffington Post all have their lists, and they’re all worth a look.

The titles that I saw again and again? The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, among others.

Perhaps my favorite list of all is from Flavorwire. It’s not a Best of 2013 list; it’s a list of syllabi by famous authors, including Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. That is a compilation of lists worth studying!


This week I picked up Timothy Egan’s biography of Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward CurtisA photographer at the turn of the 20th century, Curtis spent 30 years documenting the cultures of American Indians in the West. The images that he produced remain some of the better-known images of Native Americans.

Invocation–Sioux (1907)

Invocation–Sioux (1907)

Holy Bear's wife

Holy Bear’s wife

Three Sioux Indians on horseback (1905)

Joseph–Nez Perce (1903)

Joseph–Nez Perce (1903)

Apsaroke Mother (1908)

Apsaroke Mother (1908)

To see more of Curtis’s amazing images, visit the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.  The images here are from that catalog and all captions are original to Curtis.  Hopefully I’ll be posting a review of the biography before too long.  After 30 minutes browsing his collection online, I am in awe of his work and can’t wait to learn more about the life that produced this unbelievable record of American history.

I picked up Divergent a couple of months ago after a friend told me she’d read it and liked it. “If you liked The Hunger Games,” she said, “you’ll like it.” Well, I had consumed The Hunger Games trilogy in less than a week when I discovered it a few years ago, so this new trilogy sounded like fun. And with Allegiant, the final piece of the Divergent trilogy, releasing in October, I figured it was an excellent candidate for some binge reading.

Some people are probably over dystopian fiction at this point given the upsurge in titles in recent years, but ever since reading Alas, Babylon as a kid, I’ve been drawn to post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories. My risk-planning mind even dreams dystopian: After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, I dreamed that I was in a city that had been destroyed and I had to forage in the city for food and water to take back to the family I’d left hiding in a safe place. In other dreams there were catastrophic floods, bombings that destroyed my city, and even paratroopers landing in my neighborhood and running amok through the streets while I cowered under a neighbor’s porch. Such things  happen often around the world (well, maybe not the tons of paratroopers part), so it’s easy to see why my mind might want to play the “what-would-I-do-if” game. It’s about preparation. Dystopian fiction, although more outlandish on the face of things, taps into that same instinct, which is why I think it often works for me. When it’s good, it activates a primal response. You have to know how the characters are going to get out of the mess they’re in. The reader’s subconscious desire is to know what could be done were he or she ever in a similar situation.

Or maybe that’s just this reader. Ahem.

Divergent is cool because it’s set in Chicago. I love Chicago. And the premise is interesting. The society is split into multiple factions, each of which trains its members to think and operate according to a specific virtue: truthfulness, selflessness, courage, pursuit of knowledge, or kindness. Following a school-administered aptitude test, teenagers must choose which faction to commit their life to. After choosing, initiates must train in order to become full members of their chosen faction. We follow the main character, Tris, as she makes this choice and goes through the initiation process. What begins as a coming-of-age story (albeit it in a dystopian world) morphs into mystery as clues of plotting and resistance surface.

I don’t want to discuss the plot too much because that would mean introducing spoilers. There are certainly some interesting plot twists in the story. But the first and second parts of the novel–the part where Beatrice is training and going through initiation–really dragged. Some of the training seemed really pointless.  Also, the construct of the society had some holes. While it was clear that a couple of factions had a specific role in the society, it seemed that others did not. They were just there, being truthful, or just there, being friendly. And, a couple of factions really only seemed to exist in order to be functional in the plot; their “usual” role in this dystopian society was unclear.

Another problem was the style of the writing itself. It was difficult for me to engage with it.  There was far too much use of the pronoun I. Passages such as the following were not uncommon.

I WAKE TO sweaty palms and a pang of guilt in my chest. I am lying in the chair in the mirrored room. When I tilt my head back, I see Tori behind me. She pinches her lips together and removes electrodes from our heads. I wait for her to say something about the test—that it’s over, or that I did well, although how could I do poorly on a test like this?—but she says nothing, just pulls the wires from my forehead.

The novel is written in first person, of course, so how else could the author have done it? I get that. Still, it was somehow distracting for me, and I found myself getting a little tired of Tris and wondering whether the story would’ve been more compelling had we been able to get outside of her head.

Before picking up this book in early July, I had read only one, short war story. So this was a new experience for me. And it’s hard to find words to describe the impact of this collection of stories, which the publisher has called “loosely autobiographical.” They are inspired by the award-winning author’s experiences in the Vietnam War. They are the sort of true story that you feel in your gut, the kind that opens your eyes. They go beyond “seeing is believing,” because what Tim says he sees–or what his characters see–cannot always be believed. But somehow, through his writing, Tim still makes it known, which is even stronger truth. In the chapter titled “Good Form,” he explains his storytelling approach in The Things They Carried.

“But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief. . . .

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.”

The Vietnam War was over before I was born. I had one uncle who had fought in Vietnam. Although I can’t remember ever being told this, I knew that he was scarred by that war. He claimed that he’d been a P.O.W. and had been tortured in a Viet Cong prison camp; the VA denied this. Certain family members, I knew, weren’t sure what to believe about his stories. I confess that I never really thought about it much. But now I’m thinking about it, about how my uncle’s happening-truth and his story-truth were not so far apart; how it probably didn’t matter so much which was which; how his family needn’t have struggled so much to untangle the this from the that. O’Brien’s stories, in making things present for him, also make them present for all of us.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Mariner Books, 2009. (First published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1990.)