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Eightysomethings, by Katharine Etsy.

June 24, 2019

Eightysomethings:  A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Seeking Happiness, and Aging Well, by Katharine Etsy.  Skyhorse Publishing, September 2019.

3 stars

A shallow description by a psychotherapist of people in their eighties whom she interviewed about their lives and thoughts.

Katharine Etsy is a psychotherapist in her eighties, now living in a retirement community.  She has published several books including one on workplace diversity.  For Eightysomethings , she interviewed 128 women and men in their eighties and 26 of their children.  Although a few African American and a few who received government assistance are among her interviewees, the overwhelming majority are white individuals affluent enough to live in retirement communities.  Yet, despite their demographic similarities, Etsy clearly shows the variety of ways in which her subjects react to aging.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Eightysomethings is the substantial quotations from Etsy’s interviewees.  These are informative and fun to read.  They reveal that there is no one way to age or one acceptable pattern of emotion or response. But the interviews are mostly descriptive with little said about how or why the interviewers feel or think as they do. The interviews are grouped in loosely organized topical chapters with little analysis.  Despite the book’s subtitle, there is little practical guidance about how to age or even a definition of aging well.

Etsy has written a generally upbeat book, with minimal exploration of problems.  A few interviewees express anger or bitterness over losses.  More bemoan their lack of energy or mobility.  Yet there is little attention given to the legitimate pains and grief of our eighties.  The idea that as individuals and a society we need to pay more attention to elders is fine, but hardly radical or helpful. The book was too relentlessly upbeat for my taste.

In Jerusalem, by Lis Harris.

June 18, 2019

In Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family, by Lis Harris.   Beacon Press, September 17, 2019.  FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A balanced account by a moderate Jewish woman of her interviews with both Jewish and Arab families in Jerusalem about their extended families faced in the long conflicts between their communities.

Lis Harris is a respected American journalist, for 25 years a staff writer on The New Yorker magazine, in addition to contributing to other national publications. She now teaches writing at Columbia University.  She describes herself as a secular Jew and has written several books about her religious tradition. She knew about the Jewish experiences during and after World War II and how Israelis have treated Arabs. For her the question was how actual people on both sides had experienced the tension and violence of migration and settlement of Jews in Palestine.  She spent over ten years interviewing and coming to know various members of two extended families, one Jewish and one Arab, and researching her new book.

Harris is not interested in the official positions of leaders or in writing yet another polemic about the conflict.  Instead she wants to explore what it has felt like to live with the dangers and trauma on both sides.  She is a careful and fair witness, always respectful of her subjects on both sides.  She never belittles their sufferings or viewpoints or takes sides.  At the same time, she constantly keeps their stories in the context of how much more actual destruction has been caused by the Israelis.  It is terrifying for enemies to blow up a nearby shop, but in terms of people killed and displaced Arabs far outnumber Jewish residents.  Arabs have been displaced and continue to live under severely restricted circumstances.  Part of the explanation that Harris suggests is that some ordinary Jewish people were simply too wrapped up in their own pain and fear to be concerned about the actions against Arab residents by their government and their fellow citizens.  I don’t find that a strong explanation, but I appreciated Harris’s ability to describe how people live through generations of warfare.

In Jerusalem is a big and impressive book which attempts to interweave a great deal of material.  Harris follows her two families at the same time she provides enough of the larger history of battles and invasions for readers unfamiliar with the region.  The breadth of vision sometimes makes the book difficult to read.  None the less, I admire what she has undertaken.

I encourage others to read this book.

Unmaking Grace, by Barbara Boswell. 

June 11, 2019

Unmaking Grace
Unmaking Grace, by Barbara Boswell.   Catalyst,  December 2019.  (First published 2017 as Grace.) FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A novel about a South African girl, growing up amidst domestic violence and the public violence of the fight against apartheid and afterward facing the scars that continued to disrepute her life.

Barbara Boswell is a feminist literary scholar, born in Pennsylvania in 1946.  She earned her Ph.D. in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Maryland and has taught at various universities in the United States and South Africa.  She is particularly interested in feminist, queer, and post-colonial theory and women writers of the black diaspora, and she has researched how South African women have dealt with apartheid in their writings.  Her academic writing is full of fascinating titles.  In addition to her scholarly work, Boswell has written over fifty romance novels set in Africa.  Although her fiction is informed by her knowledge and conceptual understanding of race and gender, she seems to have kept the two strands of writing separate.

Remaking Grace centers on romantic love and how it can go right or wrong. An action-filled and enjoyable book to read, it is written in a straight forward style that masks Boswell’s deep knowledge. Yet it is not a stereotypical romance novel.  In it Boswell explores class and gender issues and divisions within the South African community.  She traces how and why women get caught in circles of violence and how such violence gets passed along to the next generation.  Yet the book is never grim and depressive. While the ending is positive, Grace is not saved by a lover.

I strongly recommend Remaking Grace for many readers.  Although Boswell is not originally from Africa, she provides us with a profound taste of women’s lives there and in abusive situations around the globe.

Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West, by Zak Podmore.

June 9, 2019

Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West, by  Zak Podmore. Torrey House Press, Oct. 2019.  FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A moving memoir and commentary by an author, and independent journalist from Bluff, Utah, sharing his stories and thoughts of the running the rivers of the American West.

Zak Podmore grew up in the Red Rock Canyons of the American West. He credits his mother with teaching him as a child to love rivers. Her recent death haunts his trips and his book.  But his commitment to this lonely country has not turned him into a hermit. He is an editor-at-large for Canoe and Kayak, he regularly has articles in regional and national publications, and he creates videos.  In addition, he is part of Utah politics, working on local issues of justice and the environment. As he indicates in his title, Confluence brings together Podmore’s personal and political writings about rivers and water in the West.

Parts of Podmore’s book are accounts of river trips he has taken in which he shares the excitement of how it feels to be on the water.  My favorite was his trip down the Little Colorado at flood stage.  Other trips are linked with specific issues. He travels the Rio Grande through Texas and discusses the conflicts over immigration.  He floats from the source of the Colorado River to the point where it once flowed into the sea, linking the river’s blockage with our determination to produce ever-increasing surpluses.  He visits the Pacific Northwest to experience rivers newly freed by the removal of dams.

Podmore has obviously been shaped by writers like Edward Abbey and Charles Bowen.  He understands their rage, and is tempted to become as bitter and despairing as they are.  But he refuses to give in to negativity.  Rivers, including some he visits, can be saved.  His writing is a part that of struggle, not a eulogy.

My response to this book was an intense desire to return Utah.  A more practical suggestion is to read Confluence and think about the issues Podmore raises.  Simply enjoy the beauty and joy he shares.

I strongly recommend this book.

The Stone Circle, by Elly Griffiths. 

June 6, 2019

The Stone Circle
The Stone Circle, by Elly Griffiths.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

2 stars

Domenica de Rosa is a prolific and popular British writer in her 50s. She has written two crime novel series under the pen name of Elly Griffiths.  The Stone Circle is her eleventh mystery about Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist.

The Stone Circle takes place on the English coast near Norfolk where  Ruth Galloway has been called back to help the local crime team at the scene of a prehistoric dig where they had been involved 20 years before.  The more recent burial of an adolescent girl on the site raises new questions and opens a host of old ones.  Characters from the previous novels in the series abound.  Events from the past haunt the present, including the past relationships among the main characters.

Finding the right balance of previous and new material in a series is always a problem for those who write series.  As a new reader of this series, I was overwhelmed by people and events from the earlier books.  I had trouble following 15 or 20 characters who had had complicated histories with each other.  Not only was it hard to keep up with everyone and their pasts, but unresolved problems from previous books clutter the book.  Subplots dangle without clear connection to the main narrative.  Even more problematic, the mystery being investigated got lost in subplots.

I suspect that readers already familiar with the series will find the book more rewarding than I did.

A Bitter Feast, by Deborah Crombie.

June 1, 2019

A Bitter Feast
A Bitter Feast, by Deborah Crombie.  HarperCollins, September 2019.

4 stars

Another enjoyable novel in a mystery series about London detectives, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, and their family and friends.

Deborah Crombie was born and raised in and around Dallas.  After living for a time to her Great Britain, she has returned to the Dallas area.  Beginning with her Kincaid and James novels in 1993, she has been widely read and rewarded for their excellence.

Crombie has published almost 20 novels about the detective couple Kincaid and James since she began their saga in the 1990s.  They have gone from partners at work to a married couple raising children as they have solved crimes in varied sites around England.  Their series is a saga of loosely connected family and friends, sparked with crimes that reveal how individuals react to extreme situations.   Yet she has kept their stories fresh by balancing previous characters, locations, and plots with new ones.  Although bad things happen in Crombie’s books, her characters are often good, usually balanced people whom the reader can come to know and to be glad to spend time in their presence.

In Bitter Feast, Kincaid. James and friends plan to spend a weekend with the prosperous and prominent parents of Gemma’s detective partner and to attend a gala being held by her mother.  Instead, they become wrapped up in murders.  Action centers around a successful woman who owns and runs the local pub and restraurant .  The plot is complicated, but in the end, we can see why events have developed as they have.   The murderer was deeply involved in the whole plot, not simply added at the last moment to provide a solution.

I started reading Crombie’s novels when they first appeared in the 1990s, a time when feminist and anti-feminist hostility was rife.  I remember being impressed with Gemma who was in no way caught up in that debate.  Her life simply transcended it.  Her story was a romance and then that of a wife and mother, while simultaneously Gemma has had a compelling and independent career, a pattern many women assume they can do today. For me, Crombie’s books, including this one, are “comfort reading” at its best.  If you haven’t read her, do.

PS  If you are a map junkie, check the maps for each book, available at her website.

Being with Dying, by Joan Halifax. 

May 28, 2019

Being with Dying
Being with Dying:  Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, by Joan Halifax.  Shambhala, 2011.

4 stars

An insightful guide to Buddhist wisdom about death and dying by an American Buddhist teacher, long active with those facing death.

Roshi Joan Halifax is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care.  Her Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology has led her into academia settings, and the projects she has initiated have allowed her to share her wisdom with Buddhist and non-Buddhists.  She has published four books and numerous shorter writings and spoken widely.  She also directs the Upaya Zen Center for study and meditation in Santa Fe.

In Being with Dying, Halifax writes for a wide audience, including those with little or no experience of Buddhism.   Because Buddhism is not monotheistic, followers of other religions often find its practices and assumptions compatible and meaningful. This is particularly true around death and dying.  Hallifax is among those who have made Buddhism accessible to American practioners by removing some of the tradition’s  more unusual details and focusing on its broader concepts.

As Hallifax states in the title, compassion and fearlessness can assist us as we face death.  She offers a way of understanding that is uncommon in western culture, yet beneficial as we are confronted with death. Each chapter in the book raises ideas to consider and then offers us guidance in meditating on them.  For example, Halifax asks us to meditate onhow we want to die.

Being with Dying has much to offer readers, no matter when we expect to die.  It carries the calmness and grace that we come to expect of Buddhism and helps us learn to practice it ourselves.