The Half Has Never Been Told (Baptist)

I found this book persuasive, but remarkably uneven. I think it’s because Baptist tried to overlay too many frames on top of it. It could also be due to the 12 years he spent on it. The metaphorical layer works in some sections, as in the chapters “Right Hand” and “Left Hand.” In other chapters, it seems forced. In still others, especially later in the book, it seems absent. Baptist also seeks to correct historical myth,  like the one that slave labor was inefficient. To do so, he cites statistics, another frame. Some of the stronger sections in the latter half of the book comment on how enslavers (his word – and the right one, I think) invented capitalist structures to protect and expand slavery, another frame (and this one seems most connected to the subtitle of the book, Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism). He reviews the political arguments about the extension of slavery. Here, I was impressed by the balanced way he presented the arguments of those who favored slavery, like Calhoun. Baptist also used narratives – some seemingly imagined, some the product of research – to illustrate his points, two more frames. And then there’s the chronological frame.

I’m not saying that these writing styles and frames are not all related. Here, though, Baptist was just not able to mesh them together well. Some 400+ page books seem quick. This one, though, seemed epic. And I admit to only skimming the Afterword to the paperback edition. I hope Baptist’s next effort will be shorter, more focused, and more stylistically coherent. He is clearly a talented researcher and I learned a great deal from this book. I just wish it didn’t feel like I was fighting so hard to get through the pages.

The Economist withdraws its ridiculous review of the book

The Long Way Home (Penny)

I know my Louise Penny guides will be dismayed that I went out of order again, but this is the one I had and I was in the mood to begin one of her mysteries. I am still hooked on the series and its characters. I found Penny’s ability to write about art to be particularly evocative here. Maybe the science teacher on the boat was a little too convenient, and what seems to be the requisite violence at the end was a bit too choreographed. And I wish Penny wouldn’t shift her style quite so abruptly when the pieces start together for Gamache et al. For a good portion of the book, we are told everything, save for the story of Gamache’s book. Still, it is named. Then we start getting sentences like, “And then he figured it out.” It’s a false suspense, I think, to just (suddenly withhold information). I realize I’ve listed some negatives here, but they are far outweighed by the psychological mysteries, both with the characters I’ve seen develop over time (if out of order) and the details of this particular mystery. And it is not often that I stop a piece of fiction to search out some details to see if they are real places (they were) or Penny just made them up. I enjoyed that.

And yes, I’ll try to get them in the right order from now on!

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Bloom)

I read a newspaper article about this a while ago, so when I saw the book for five bucks, I figured I’d give it a try. I’ve been to Iowa a few times, and I am Jewish. The juxtaposition of ultra-Orthodox Jews and small-town Iowa seemed rich with possibilities. And Bloom outlines them, folding in the narrative of his own family’s move to Iowa. The problem here is Bloom. He has the recipe for a strong, important piece of creative non-fiction, and he swings and misses. As a narrator, he’s just annoying and he makes himself into more of a character in the conflict that he needs to be. In the Afterword, he takes a kind of martyr’s pride in the fact that people seemed to love or hate his book when it first came out. I neither loved nor hated it. It was just kind of . . . meh. Mostly, I wish another writer had been present to write the story.

Outline (Cusk)

The blurb on the front of my edition of the book, by Heidi Julavits (a writer I admire), sums up both the successes of this book and its pitfalls. For me, the latter outweighed the former, so I won’t be continuing with the trilogy. Julavits calls Cusk “one of the smartest writers alive.” Hyperbole aside, the writing here is certainly smart, much it in the form of intricate conversations that take place on airplanes, in cafes, etc.. Cusk negotiates these conversations with such nuance that I wanted to be in the conversations; I just didn’t want to particularly be reading them. As in Alison’s Nine Island, the protagonist is reconsidering relationships. In fact, she seems to be reconsidering taking an active part in her whole life. The narrator says

I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.

So if you’re in the mood for a kind of My Dinner with Andre in book form, this is for you.

Poems 1999-2014 (Foster)

The only problem with this book is that I’ve heard Foster read her own work out loud, and my attempts to re-create her voice in my head were laughable. It’s a challenge with spoken word work, I think. It can be hard to focus, to catch everything when you are listening (maybe that’s not the goal?), so I like to read it, but then I lose the energy the author brings to the delivery. In my world, all spoken word books should be required to be accompanied by a CD of the author reading her work.

More often than not, the energy in Foster’s writing just pops off the page with such electricity that it takes on a life of its own. She’s particularly on point when she’s working on many levels at once, the politics of gender, relationships (“you walked away / without giving me myself back” from “Nothing”), race, etc.. “Stains” is a favorite. The juxtaposition of “Recollection” and “Two Bodies” packs a powerful punch. At first, I was surprised that these two were written 8 years apart, but then, after re-reading them, I saw both the connections and development. “All Apologies” and “Assignment One” are both great.

“Therapy – Session I” brought me to tears, both because of its beauty and its “heart break ache.”

I hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next collection!

Foster performing “216”

Nine Island (Alison)

This was, well, different. Since Alison herself is a translator of Ovid, and the protagonist here translates Ovid, well. . .  I don’t know much Ovid, so I’m sure there are some references I missed. That said, the stories here – sometimes individual, sometimes connected, sometimes not so comprehensible – focus on sex. J, the protagonist, lives in a high rise in Miami that seems largely

J, the protagonist, lives in a high rise in Miami that seems largely populated by senior citizens. The building is deteriorating, so there is a great deal of contentiousness about who’s going to get the contract to replace the pool. Come to think of it, J’s cat is deteriorating too. And she can’t save the duck she passes on her regular walks. And, despite some encouraging, if long-distance, friends, she can’t seem to save herself either.

She has connections. Her mother. Some men – who don’t seem to be so good for her. And some people in the building. And it is these neighbors that bring us to the most thoughtfully heartbreaking end.

An odd little book, this. But interesting.

Jane Alison’s site

Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago: In Their Own Words (Mayer)

I don’t remember why, but Steppenwolf was on my horizon when I moved to Chicago, but it took me a while to get there. I was working on a show in Hyde Park, and one of the actors had directed the student show at Steppenwolf, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Aside from the students who threw coins from the balcony onto the stage (prompting one of the actors, W. Earl Brown, to threaten to come up there and beat someone up, and the idiotic comment from the theatre critic from the Reader, Mary Shen Barnidge, who defended the students by saying, “People threw things in Shakespeare’s day, too,” I really enjoyed the play. Later that night, I saw the mainstage production featuring the guy who played the killer in The Silence of the Lambs, a series of unintelligible accents, and a car crashing into the set at the end (on purpose), and I hated it. Such was my introduction to Steppenwolf.

Despite the evening’s experience, I went back often, even working in the box office for a stretch, including during the runs of two of the plays highlighted in this nostalgic look at the theatre’s history – The Road to Nirvana (an absolute disaster of a Mamet parody – I remember seeing it, but little about it aside from the f— filled first few minutes of the script) and The Song of Jacob Zulu featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I was early for my first day of work and, as I waited, John Malkovich walked in, used the phone in the foyer and was buzzed into the building, a building (1650 N. Halsted) that plays more of a role in Steppenwolf’s history than I knew. That John Malkovich was there, though, is an integral part of the theatre’s credo. No matter how far their stars travel, they always want them to return – and they do. Laurie Metcalf, apparently, returned during every hiatus while she was filming Rosanne to prove to herself that she could still act. I saw her in My Thing of Love three times; she can still act.

The author, John Mayer, was a high school classmate of both Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise (2/3 of the company’s founders) and admits right off that his book will largely be a love letter to the company, and it is. Though there are allusions to difficult stretches – most directly in the end of Randall Arney’s reign as Artistic Director – most of the book is an account of a rags (church basement in Highland Park) to riches (new building on Halsted, shows in New York, London, etc.) story of the company  (focusing on three of its landmark productions, Balm in Gilead, The Grapes of Wrath  and August: Osage County) with a brief look ahead.

Still, if you are at all interested in the company, it’s an entertaining read, especially when Mayer (wisely) lets the ensemble members speak for themselves which he does often. John Mahoney’s description of Malkovich’s charisma made me laugh so hard that water came out of my nose. I tried to read it out loud to my wife, but eventually just had to hand her the book. Actually, she took it.

If you are not a huge theatre fan, there’s still something here for you – about collaboration, community, sticking to your principles and evolving, and doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Whenever I visit Chicago, I always look to see what’s going on at Steppenwolf. And, more often than not, I find a way to spend some time there. I’m no John Malkovich, but I, too, feel free to return.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company