The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us (Feiler)

Perhaps if Feiler had been more immediately forthcoming with the story of his health struggles and their apparent relationship to his quest to find the Bible in every day life, I might have been more indulgent with him. Since these facts are offered as minor and seemingly insignificant asides after far too many pages have gone by, I just found Feiler’s whole project to be at best, entertaining, and at worst, well, self-indulgent and silly.

There are occasional glimpses of insight into the story of Adam and Eve and its meaning today, but more often than not, Feiler contorts whatever ideas he encounters to suit his pre-determined thesis and either ignores or overlooks other ideas. I found myself writing, often angrily, in the margins, but I eventually abandoned the effort. His whole project was so incredibly self-serving as to be almost offensive. I’m quite sure others would have been able to do much more with uninterrupted access to the Sistine Chapel, for example.

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The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays (Camus)

This one was a book club selection, so if you are so inclined, you don’t have to worry about me. A veteran of The Stranger only, I have always been curious about this. I’m just not sure my philosophical chops are up to reading such things anymore. There were definitely certain points that made more sense to me, the connections to Hamlet, for example. There is certainly much to highlight and I’ll be counting on my book club to help me understand any of it. I am still interested in trying more of his fiction.

Always Running (Rodriguez)

These are words from the ground level. Rodriguez, an active gang member at a young age (periodically, he reminds us how old he is when something has happened – and it’s always a shock), tells his story – of gang life, home life, school life – and how he found his way back from what seemed to be an early date with a violent death. He not only found his way back, but he becomes a kind of La Vida Loca interrupter, seeking to divert those who are making the kinds of choices he once made.

In his new introduction, Rodriguez recounts a sadly ironic moment in which he is invited to speak at a school but because his book is banned, he can’t bring in a copy. I grant you that as much as I became energized by the prospect of using this book in the classroom, my possibly prudish self found his detailed descriptions of his sexual exploits to be a little much. They are not enough to prevent me from using it one day, but it definitely pushed the book into the upper grades, and would have me on my guard for those who would object.

Rodriguez writes smoothly, at times poetically, though sometimes his dialogue can come across as a bit wooden and his accounts of messy moments can come across as too neat. Still, this was an eye-opener for me and inspiring. Art and writing and some teachers helped contribute to Rodriguez’s emergence, and those are all things I support.

Moments of Reprieve (Levi)

I am not sure what to call the stories Levi presents, but essays (what’s on the cover) seems wrong. They are more than vignettes. They are, perhaps, sketches of decency amidst the everyday horror of Levi’s experience at Auschwitz. In addition to the beauty evoked by Levi’s account of the surprising appearance of a violin or the astonishing decision by a prisoner to ask for his food to be saved for a day because it was Yom Kippur (and the equally astonishing decision to grant this request) is Levi’s apparent lack of bitterness. His criticisms are gentle but definitive. Perhaps it’s because he knows that the horrors have been described elsewhere. I was surprised to learn that he’d read biographies of various leading Nazis.

These stories, these as true as they can be stories (Levi acknowledges the limits of memory and perspective) areas human and detailed and as moving as language can create. Each one could become a whole novel. Instead, Levi paints his sketch and leaves the gaps and the colors and the implications for his readers to supply.

Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (Smith)

I’ve been fascinated by this guy ever since I saw an exhibit about him at the Maryland Science Center. He seemed the perfect model for the adventurer who finds Victor Frankenstein on the ice and hears his story.

Still, there has to be more than that. His exploits on the ice, in terms of improvisation, are legendary. His preparation, his domestic life – not so much. Does he have the whiff of a tragic hero about him, similar to Alexander Hamilton?

Smith writes well by limiting the technical jargon and the digressions and writing a kind of adventure story himself. So much is easy to see in hindsight. I also appreciated how Smith was careful to identify where knowledge stopped and speculation began, especially as it relates to Shackleton’s finances, a mysterious letter, and his relationship with women.

Maybe Shackleton’s charisma just works on me the way Smith reports on so many people who maybe should have known better. I think Smith’s account is balanced and in the end that he applauds him, for all of his many flaws. I guess, in this age where we’re bloodthirsty to take down anyone and everyone for any flaw real or perceived, I want to applaud both Smith and Shackleton.

Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation” (Souther)

Though, at times, this reads too much like a dissertation, I really enjoyed this book. Souther traces the evolution of Cleveland and seeks to complicate the traditional narrative about cities by using Cleveland as an example. Cities, he argues, are neither coming back nor declining. They are, instead, doing both at the same time. An additional complication is the effort the city makes and its intended audience. Is the effort for outsiders? If outsiders, then is it tourists or businesses? If it’s ‘insiders,’ is that truly code for white and wealthy suburbanites? Is there a need to change perceptions or reality? And reality? Is there a need to change the city’s general disposition so that outsiders who visit will think more favorably of it? So that these same ‘insiders’ will be more favorably disposed toward proposed efforts to make changes? How much effort should be spent on downtown vs. neighborhoods? On Cleveland vs. Greater Cleveland?

There are a few lessons to be gleaned from the city’s history (according to Souther). Coalitions function more effectively than those with individual interests. When people and groups act according to “enlightened self-interest,” the results are better. The shift in the economy from production to consumption continues to be devastating to this day. And no one, it seems, asks the people who live in the city what they think would help improve the city, almost certainly because they do not pay enough taxes to make their insights worth due consideration. Their race also means their seats at the table are limited.

To Souther’s credit, he does not shy away from difficult topics like race and class. He names racism where he sees it, and he sees it as a recurring obstacle. He identifies a need that is familiar to me from other books about Cleveland – the need for inexpensive and well-maintained housing options in a wide variety of neighborhoods.

Since the book is a historical survey, it is not surprising that at times I wanted more depth in one area or another. And I have the familiar complaint that while many problems and their consequences are identified, little is offered by way of solutions or even success stories from other cities that we should see as models. But I’ve realized before this that this is not the responsibility of critics (who often throw in such chapters as afterthoughts).

Since I am not a native Clevelander, I was amused to find myself feeling protective of the city as I read. How dare this guy, also an outsider, think he has anything to say about Cleveland? Am I on my way to honorary ‘insider’ status? Unlike in some of our previous zip codes, we have felt welcomed here, even though we didn’t go to high school here. This, and to be honest, by this I mean ‘greater’ Cleveland, is, at long last, home.

Woody Guthrie: A Life (Klein)

I started this to get myself in the mood to teach Steinbeck, but I think I got more than I bargained for. This biography is just too long, especially when Klein quotes (at length) some of Guthrie’s more sexual letters. I also think he does Guthrie a disservice by waiting until the end to retroactively label some of Guthrie’s behavior as symptoms of the disease that would kill him (and had killed his mother).

It was interesting to read how Guthrie pretty much invented himself and made his way around the country, learning both by observing and by reading. The relationship between his family and fire was just heartbreaking. As always, I loved when Klein described intersections Guthrie had with other names I knew (musical and otherwise, like Steinbeck) as well as historical events.

I don’t know if it’s the best Guthrie biography out there, but it’s certainly the only one I’m going to read. And yes, I now have Guthrie in the regular Spotify rotation in my car.