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A Girl’s Guide to Missiles, by Karen Piper.

September 20, 2018

A Girl's Guide to MissilesA Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America’s Secret Desert, by Karen Piper.  Penguin, August  2018.

4 stars

A perceptive memoir about growing up and coming of age in a small town on the edge of giant missile research and testing ground.

Karen Piper is a literature and geography professor at the University of Missouri.  She has published several non-fiction books.  In A Girl’s Guide to Missiles, she writes about her own life, living as a child in a small town inhabited by the families of worker at the China Lake missile range in the Mojave Desert in the years after World War II.

The town of China Lake epitomized much of life in postwar America with its emphasis on effective military devices and the fear they engendered even in those who made them.  Yet the people of the town, and Piper’s family were ordinary working-class individuals, doing what was needed to support themselves.  By and large their dramas were minor domestic ones.  A strong Evangelical faith undergirded their lives and helped them believe in the value of creating effective killing devises.  Unsurprisingly when Piper left China Lake for college, her unquestioned conservative beliefs were challenged.  As she describes, she came to reject her trust in militarism, secrecy, and rigid conformity.  Her book is an exploration of where she came from and why she changed.

Piper is a good storyteller. Her writing is clear and accessible.  Her book adds to our understanding of how the United States solidified itself as a world power.   I loved her vivid descriptions of the desert in which she lived.   I am glad to recommend it to other readers, especially to those of us who are old enough to share her memories and to those who care about how this nation has become what it is today.

Revive Us Again, by the Rev. Dr. William Barber,

September 17, 2018

Revive Us Again

Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing, by the Rev. Dr. William Barber, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Rev. Dr. Rick Lowery.  Beacon  Press, 2018.

Forthcoming Dec. 2018.

A collection of addresses calling for all of those who are oppressed in today’s America to put down their divisions and work together in a new Poor People’s Campaign.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is an African American minister from North Carolina who gained national attention for his “Moral Monday”  demonstrations standing  up for moral, progressive causes in the face of his state’s repressive actions.  In addition to his stirring eloquence, he brings to organizing a practical ability to bring diverse groups together to work in alliances to achieve core goals.  Supporting “fusion politics,” he works to find common moral ground between those divided by race, class, religion, women’s rights, and LBGTQ rights.  He focuses on the deep moral basis for all this movements.

In Revive Us Again,  Rev. Barber’s words lead each section, followed the words of other activists and intellectuals amplifying his statements, sometimes with sermons or biblical references.  For these writers, religion is not a static force for the few, but a demand that we all we act to care for all in need. And in their viewpoint, that call demands a political as well as private response.

I strongly recommend this book for all those who feel a moral need to stand up to injustice and are looking for creative ways to work together in creative alliances.

The Affairs of the Falcons, by Melissa Rivero.

September 14, 2018

The Affairs of the Falcons
The Affairs of the Falcons, by Melissa Rivero.  ECCO.  Forthcoming, 2019.

4 stars.

A timely novel about an undocumented woman from Peru and her family and friends as they try to survive and keep their children in New York City. ECCO. Forthcoming 2019.

Melissa Rivero was born in Lima, Peru.  She spent her childhood as an undocumented immigrant in Brooklyn, only becoming a U.S. citizen in her twenties.  She has graduated from NYU and the Brooklyn Law School.  Her ability as a writer has led to her inclusion in several writing programs.  This is her first novel.

Ana has come to New York with her husband and two small children. She works with a group of women in a garment factory and although her husband has a college education, he is reduced to driving a cab at night.  Forced to borrow and live with relations, they are at the mercy of the individuals on whom they are forced to depend and always afraid of deportation.  While others pressure Ana to send her children back to Peru to be raised by relatives, she is determined not to be separated from them.

I found Rivero to be a good, but not great writer.  Yet she has the rare ability to write about painful emotions and situations with just the right balance of distance and paralyzing involvement.  We live in times when many around us are suffering.  Writers or not, we all need to see and acknowledge that pain without becoming overwhelmed.  I congratulate Rivero for providing us an example of how to do this.

In addition, Rivero is not into blaming her characters.  They blame each other, and some are definitely more blame worthy than others.  But that is not Rivero’s point. She shows us a close group of individuals thrown together in threatening situations and forced to choose between bad options, options that hurt themselves and others.  The world she depicts doesn’t force her characters to be criminals, but it is a world where people are truly vulnerable and hard work does not necessarily save you.

Rivero did not teach me anything I didn’t know about what can happen to recent immigrates.  Instead she showed me the complexities of their lives.  She shares their individual lives with us in clear comprehensible prose.

This is an honest book that needs to be widely read especially by those of us who live in a country that is deporting migrants and separating parents and children.

Elkhorn: Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape, by Richard Taylor.

September 12, 2018

ElkhornElkhorn: Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape, by Richard Taylor.  University of Kentucky Press, September 5, 2018.

4 stars

A well-researched and written local history of a small piece of land around the Elkhorn River in north central Kentucky by an English professor and former state poet laureate who has lived there for forty years.

Richard Taylor was born in 1941 and spent his childhood in Louisville, Kentucky, with visits to relatives in more rural regions of the state.  He earned his B.A. from the University of Kentucky, his M.A. and his law degree from the University of Louisville, and his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky.  He has written two novels, several collections of poetry, and a variety of publications on Kentucky history.  From 1999 to 2000 he served as Kentucky Poet Laureate. He now teaches creative writing at Transylvania University in Lexington.

Forty years ago Taylor came to Frankfort to teach.  He and his wife bought a small farm and dilapidated house overlooking Elkhorn River. In addition to repairing the house and taking frequent kayak trips on the Elkhorn, Taylor has collected all he could about the river and the land and the people who lived here. Elkhorn is the summation of what he found.  The book is gentle trip down a calm stretch of the river, stopping here and there to talk about what has happened in its vicinity. Interspersed with the history are loving descriptions of the region which has happened to avoid the worst of urban sprawl.

Taylor starts his story with the discovery of bones of a prehistoric mammoth near the Elkhorn and the geology of the area.  From there he goes on to writes about Native American legends and what is known about the land’s first inhabitants. Moving chronologically he learns about hunters and surveyors who came to claim the land before the American Revolution.  We learn of the men and women who first settled on Taylor’s farm and the house, built in the 1859, in which he lives.  As he moves on to the near past, one reads about all sorts of topics, unexpected in this context, but interesting and relevant because they actually existed here.  For example there is a long discussion of early papermaking and another on the growth of bourbon industry.

Elkhorn is the kind of local history that every county and region needs, but few have.  The research is careful, through and fair.  It has no ax to grind in local rivalries.  Local details are brought together into a coherent form, and discussed within the context of larger historical developments. And the book is a joy to read.

I recommend Elkhorn to all who like local history or who are interested in Appalachia.

The Hired Man: A Novel, by Aminatta Forna.

September 7, 2018

The Hired Man
The Hired Man: A Novel, by Aminatta Forna.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013.

5 stars

A compelling novel about a Croatian village before and after its civil war, told by a fine African novelist who has known her own civil wars.

Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland to a Senegalese father and a Scottish mother. As a child, she moved from country to country. Her father was killed by opposition politicians in Senegal when she was 11.  She later wrote about his death and her search for his story in The Devil that Danced on the Waters.  Two of her books are based in Senegal and one is about diverse immigrants in London.  (See my reviews.)  I find her an amazing writer that I barely know how to describe.

The narrator of The Hired Man is a solitary man, Duro, who is a longtime resident of a small Croatian village.  He lives alone doing whatever jobs he can to support himself and his two dogs.  His life changes with the arrival of an English woman, Laura, and her two teenagers. She has come to live in and renovate a small blue house which her husband has bought.  As Forna describes, Laura is an attractive woman who assumes that she will be understood when she speaks English in a foreign land.  She barely knows where to start work on the house until Duro appears, helps, and gets hired to work for her.  As he works, we gradually learn he has known and loved the house and its former occupants.  Working on the house and interaction with the English family awakens his memories of civil war and what he has lost.  It also awakens hostile relations with some in the village.

Forna tells her story with grace and restraint, alternating smoothly between the village in the present, years after the war ended, and what has happened in the past.  Relatively little actually takes place, but the book is haunted by love and loss.  Forna shows us the ongoing cost of war and trauma for those involved.  We are also forced to face that war is about people.  Civil war is about friends and family on both sides, and personal betrayals, and the memories that don’t end when the war ends.  We can talk about long-term animosities between groups, but we miss personal elements of being attacked by those we consider friends or family.  Yet Forna and her reserved hired man give us distance and space to begin to understand the pain.

The Hired Man is probably Forna’s best book, and I have loved all of them.  Its focus is sharper and more unified.  I only wish I had paid more attention to war in the Balkans, as we called it, so that I could have picked up more quickly on the ethnicity indicated by their family names.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to all readers.

Where the Past Began: A Writer’s Memoir, by Amy Tan.

September 4, 2018

Where the Past Begins
Where the Past Began: A Writer’s Memoir, by Amy Tan.

5 stars

A memoir tracing key events in a well-known Chinese American and her families which focuses on what it means to be a writer.

Amy Tan is a major Chinese American writer. Born in 1952 to recent immigrants from China, she experienced a strange and chaotic childhood.  She graduated from college and earned a M.A. in linguistics before becoming a freelance writer.  Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club  (1989), was surprisingly successful and introduced two themes that have since become popular with numerous writers.  She focused on mother/daughter relationships, and she wrote about what immigrants had left behind rather than what they hoped to find in America.  She has gone on to write other novels drawing on her Chinese American background, as well as an opera and several children’s books.

Where the Past Began is unusual, even for a memoir.  Tan does relate a great deal of information about her own life and the lives of her ancestors, especially the women from whom she is descended.  But she does not tell her stories in chronological order, preferring to circle back and forth around key events.  Many of these stories are highly unusual.  What I found most interesting, however, was her attempt to put into words what it means to her to be a writer. She observes that sometimes she writes to learn about herself, and she seems to be doing just that as she tries to put into words the swirling images and metaphors that come to her when she writes.  She brings us inside her writing process as well as her past, not so we can duplicate her method, but simply to communicate to us who she is.

I strongly recommend this book, especially for those readers who love words and images—and Amy Tan.

Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, by Helen Matthews Lewis

September 2, 2018

The Lost Queen
Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, by Helen Matthews Lewis and edited by Pat Beaver and Judith Jennings.  University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

5 stars

The biography and writings of an outstanding activist and scholar in Appalachia and some of her colleagues.

Helen Matthews Lewis (1924-    ) was born and educated in the hills of northern Georgia.  In grad school at Duke University, she met and married Judd Lewis and the two of them went to Clinch Valley Community College to teach.  She began her lifelong project of working with the residents of the small, rural communities of Appalachia.  She finished her Ph.D. in sociology, writing her dissertation on the families in such coal towns.  Instead of focusing her energies on academic advancement, however, she used what she had learned to help local rural people understand the economic and historical contexts of their situations and come up with their own solutions. She came to exemplify what it means to be an activist scholar.

For Lewis, organizing was never a matter of giving people what you think they need. She was a warm, outgoing person, able to make friends quickly with a wide variety of people pushing them to decide what they needed and what could be done.  For years she worked with Miles Horton at Highlander and adapted his basic organizing philosophy of organizing which centered on community involvement.  Her work often focused on women organizers, in part, because they were the ones angry and available when the men were missing from the community, long-term or down in the mines.  She was also sensitive to religious commitment, living for a time with a community of ex-nuns.

As this book makes clear, Lewis was successful because she was articulate.  She could make her academic concepts clear to ordinary people, in the Appalachian communities and to readers today. She used the model that identified the region as an internal colony from which natural resources like timber and coal were exploited. Such practices benefited absentee owners at the expense of local people.  Visiting coal mining towns in southern Wales, she pointed out their similarities with communities in Tennessee, Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia.  In addition, some people credit Lewis with the creation of Appalachian Studies programs in colleges in this region. Such programs have become the source of scholarship about the area. These programs were also a way for people to know and evaluate their history and to support growing programs of participatory research.

Reading the words of Lewis and those who worked with her over the years is an inspiration.  In addition, she gives us a new conceptual framework for working with communities instead of working for them.  That framework is especially needed in our polarized country today.  Especially for those living and working in Appalachia.

I hope that many people will read this book and others by Lewis.  Unfortunately her books are not widely available even in the Tennessee mountains.  I have a copy of Helen Matthews Lewis, and would be glad to share it and any others by her that I can locate. Especially to those young and energetic enough to follow her example today.