Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson

18404319Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson recounts the history of the Tomlinson families of Tomlinson Hill, Texas – one a privileged white slave holding family, and the other family, the slaves that took the Tomlinson name. Tomlinson begins the book with the migration of the white Tomlinsons from Alabama to Falls County, Texas with their slaves walking the distance as the masters rode.

This book was tough going for me at the beginning – so many battles, so many acreages, so many names to process and keep straight.

I’m glad I stuck with Tomlinson Hill past the difficult battle passages. The parallel history of the two Tomlinson families is a compelling story of race, privilege, and bloody Texan history. Much of this history is painfully sad and grim, particularly the determined, evil way the whites were able to entrap the freed slaves into the virtual slavery of the sharecropping system. The North may have won the war, and passed the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Southern white landowners controlled the ballot boxes and ruled by intimidation and terror.

The final chapters detailing the author’s own experiences and LaDainian and LaVar Tomlinson’s experiences are superb. It took the black Tomlinson family 4 generations to get out of the racist manual labor system of Texas. Their experience was reflective of the African American experience in rural Texas. As white landowners mechanized farming, the former sharecroppers and farm workers were hard pressed to find work, and the “separate but equal” education system kept them in their place. Their white counterparts – even the relatively unsuccessful and uneducated – never faced the brutal poverty the black Tomlinsons did, even after declaring bankruptcy.

This book is an indictment of Texan culture, which unbelievably, never elected an African American to statewide office until 1990. 1990! Another fact that astounded me was the “rebranding” of Texas as a western state. My impressions of Texas as a cowboy Western state are the product of a conscious rebranding effort to avoid discussing the shameful slave holding past. Tomlinson dispels many of the myths we were fed as school children regarding the south. “They didn’t know better” and “they didn’t understand what they were doing” get quickly debunked with editorials published in Texas newspaper before the  Civil War.

The author, Chris Tomlinson, discusses his experiences as a child with government ordered desegregation of the school system. I found these chapters fascinating, as I attended schools in Wilmington, Delaware that were also ordered to desegregate by the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. I saw so many of my peers packed off to private and parochial schools, compounding the desegregation issue and preventing meaningful integration with white flight and fears of the “not like me.”

My experiences were much the same as Tomlinson’s. Yes, there was a lot of upheaval in the local schools. Yes, there were different standards in different schools that compounded problems. But, there was sincere reaching out and healthy interaction that outweighed so much of the negative. My teacher that year was Ed Sherrill, an educator in the Wilmington public school system, and he was the first African American teacher I had ever had. He was tall, with a booming voice, was my homeroom teacher, taught social studies, and I loved him. Meaningful integration of our schools is the only way we are going to succeed as a society.

I do have a warning: the chapters dealing with the Ku Klux Klan are difficult.

I would recommend this quite scholarly work to readers interested in American history, particularly the history of racism in America. The history of the Tomlinson family is our American history, complete with triumphs and failure, kindnesses and injuries.

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The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

12401556I heard an interview with Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles and was immediately intrigued. The premise of her novel sounded fantastic – the earth’s rotation starts to slow, making the days and nights progressively longer. What would happen? How would people react?

Walker tells her story through Julia, an eleven-going-on-twelve middle school girl who finds herself lost and lonely at the start of the “Slowing.” Julia loses her best friend – ultimately caused by the slowing – and struggles to cope with changes at school and at home.

I wanted to be swept away, and I wanted to care about Julia. But I found myself distracted by Walker’s language and word choice. Peculiar metaphors did nothing to elucidate the character’s feelings. There were endless repetitions of “I remember” and “that was the last time I saw or did x.” Then there were the carefully crafted phrases that made me think Walker was hoping to make the next edition of Bartlett’s.

When I wasn’t distracted by the text, I realized that this was a fairly traditional coming of age tale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need to hear these stories. The journey of growing up is a journey we all take, and hearing a fictional tale about growing up can help us process our own experience. Through the lens of Walker’s imaginative setting, Julia’s life journey unfolds.

I felt that Walker’s catastrophe “The slowing” was fascinating in its ramifications. The death of all plant life, the erosion of the earth’s magnetic field, the birds dying en masse and people suffering from “gravity sickness” are all part of the slowing. But frankly, any sort of disaster could have been the catastrophe that compels Julia to tell her story.

I was also disappointed in Julia’s development. She’s a lonely girl at the start of the book, and seems to be a lonely woman at the end. While she shares a special friendship with Seth Moreno, at the conclusion of the story, I don’t think Julia was changed by this friendship. In fact, I don’t think Julia changes much at all, which is a shame. The melancholy girl without confidence or hope has become a woman without much hope whose mother says that she dwells too much on the past.

While I was not wowed by this book, I do enjoy a genre bending novel that stretches your genre muscles. Science fiction, dystopia, family drama, and middle school angst – this novel defies classification.

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Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris by Stanislaw95558 Lem is an old fashioned scifi classic. Old fashioned in a Star Trek sense, with scientists in spacesuits, traveling to new planets. In this case, the planet is Solaris, a planet with 2 suns and an “ocean” comprised of an unknown morphing substance. Earth’s scientists have devoted decades of study to this planet and ocean, developing an elaborate classification system of the ocean’s ever changing formations.

Research into Solaris is stagnant, until the latest expedition tries an unauthorized experiment – bombarding the ocean with highly powered X-rays. Finally, the scientists have attracted the attention of the ocean, which appears to be sentient, intelligent, and until now, completely uninterested in the human expedition.

Kris Kelvin arrives on Solaris just after this experiment. After arriving on the research station, he wakes up to find his dead wife, Rheya with him. Rheya committed suicide years ago, after a quarrel with Kelvin, and seeing her changes Kelvin’s approach to Solaris. Each scientist on Solaris has a visitor, someone important to them towards whom they feel love, guilt, and responsibility. The visitors are discovered to be comprised of neutrinos, manifested by the ocean.

What is the ocean’s purpose? Is it curious or hostile? Is it performing an experiment of its own?

This novel raises a host of questions regarding experimentation and ethics, sentience and responsibility. Pondering these questions is fascinating – and helps alleviate some of the tedium of the narrative. Lem lets the novel get bogged down in lengthy discussions of the oceanic formations and the scientific theories regarding Solaris.

Even with the overly detailed descriptive passages about the ocean and the history of the scientists – called Solarians – this novel is worth reading. It brings to the reader’s attention a question that we really need to think about: when and if humans encounter alien intelligence, will we recognize it? And – even more frightening – will that intelligence recognize us?

 

 

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The Happiness Project

6398634Why, why do I do this to myself and read self help books that are destined to make me feel inadequate and superfluous to my own life?

Rubin’s stated purpose is to bring more happiness into her ordinary life. However, Rubin is Ivy league educated, then Yale Law, clerked for Justice Sandra Day O-Connor, was invited to serve on the Foreign Relations Council, and she’s the daughter-in-law of Robert Rubin. I hardly think her life is ordinary.

And this whole topic started to wear on me, with Rubin’s perky projects designed to increase happiness. I don’t think I’d have the time to fit in many of her suggestions, between working, laundry, feeding my family, laundry, shuttling 3 kids around, and laundry.

Somehow I suspect that Rubin doesn’t have to take care of many of the mundane tasks that I have on my plate. I need a book that helps me find the joy in ironing. I think I’ll be waiting awhile for that book to be released.

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Death of an Artist by Kate Wilhelm

14579213It’s a bad sign when the most interesting character in the book is murdered in the first third of the book.

Stef, an eccentric and brilliant visual artist, is at odds with her 4th husband, Dale. When Stef falls to her death, her mother and daughter band together to prove that Stef was murdered. They enlist the help of Tony Maurizio, former NYC detective now retired on disability, who has just moved to their small Oregon coastal village.

While this is labeled “a mystery” on the cover, it’s not really a whodunit, howdunit, or even why-they-dunit. So this isn’t really a mystery in a traditional sense – we all know who has murdered Stef from the very beginning. The novel is an exercise in justice – do you have the courage to deal out vigilante justice on your own? Can you accept that people do sometimes get away with murder? How far will you go?

Unfortunately, it’s not enough of a conundrum and the characters just weren’t compelling enough to sustain my interest. I listened to this audiobook – which was very well performed – and I was struggling to listen at the end. The little fillip of romance at the end had me shouting at the author in my car. And you know, I really, really missed Stef, the murdered woman.

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Book Selfie #4

Photo on 3-20-14 at 10.44 PM #3

Scared?

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03/20/2014 · 10:57 pm

Letters by Kurt Vonnegut

Dear Neil Gaiman, Christopher Barzak, and Maureen McHugh,
Dear Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Lethem,
and dear Kevin Powers, dear Patrick Ness, and dear Erin Morganstern –

Twenty years from now, I don’t want to read “The Collected Facebook Statuses of <insert your name here>.” Nor do I want to read “The Collected Blog Posts of <insert your name again here>.”, or even “The Twitter Feed of <yes, your name again>.”

Do you have a fellow author you mentor? Are you writing them letters? How about children, aunts, cousins, high school friends, teachers – do you sit down and write them a letter once in a while?

Please do.

I have just finished reading Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, edited by his friend and fellow author Dan Wakefield. I feel like a door has been opened into the mind and life of Mr. Vonnegut, and my impression of the man and his writing has been utterly changed and deepened.

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I guess I had always assumed that Kurt Vonnegut was probably most like his character Kilgore Trout, the strange and stoically unsuccessful scifi author that is featured in many of Vonnegut’s novels. Instead, I have come to know a man who cared passionately about his family – including his former wife Jane. He kept up a correspondence with many other writers, especially the authors he met while teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His encouragement and advice to these writers continued from the time he met them in the late sixties, all the way up until his death in 2007.

He also wrote to his teachers, army friends, and kept up a lifelong correspondence with friends from his high school in Indianapolis.

Vonnegut also felt very strongly about censorship and free speech. There are quite a few letters in this collection, previously unpublished, sent privately to the towns and school boards that proposed banning his works from their libraries.

Standout correspondence from Vonnegut that touched my heart were his tender, often apologetic letters to his daughter Nanny. Nanny appears to have had a difficult time with her parents divorce – more difficult than her parents, even, and Vonnegut time and again reassures her that the divorce had nothing to do with her or another woman. The letters are those of a man whose heart is laid bare:

Anytime you want to come here, do it. I have not schedule to upset, no secrets to hide, no privacy to guard from you. (Letters, p 177)

That’s not to say that Vonnegut doesn’t get a bit testy, a la Kilgore, from time to time. Difficulties with his agents and lawyers are documented in his letters. It’s comforting to know, from editor Wakefield’s notes, that Vonnegut did resolve his estrangement from his long time agent and they resumed their friendship.

One of the most amusing letters is from November 1999, sent to Ms. Noel Sturgeon, daughter of the famous scifi author Theodore Sturgeon. Ms. Sturgeon wrote to Vonnegut, requesting that he write an introduction to a new edition of her father’s short stories. Vonnegut’s reply to her explained the relationship between Theodore Sturgeon, real life scifi author, and Kilgore Trout, fictional scifi author created by Vonnegut. Here Vonnegut explains once and for all – was Sturgeon indeed the model for Trout:

We knew each other’s work, but had never met. Bingo! There we were face-to-face at last, at suppertime in my living room.

Ted had been writing non-stop nor days or maybe weeks. He was skinny and haggard, underpaid and unappreciated outside the ghetto science fiction was then. He announced that he was going to do a standing back flip, which he did. He landed on his knees with a crash which shook the whole house. When he got back on his feet, humiliated and laughing in agony, one of the best writers in America was indeed, but only for a moment, my model for Kilgore Trout. (Letters, p388)

Wakefield has grouped the letters by decade, and has written an introductory note to each section that frames the major events in Vonnegut’s life during that period. This was very helpful. However, there were a few significant letters – most obviously, the angry letter Vonnegut wrote after discovering that his second wife is having an affair – that Wakefield never addresses in his notes. Unless I read a biography of Vonnegut, I’m not going to learn the context of that letter.

Also, Wakefield did some editing of the body of the letters, for understandable reasons, removing addresses, phone numbers, and repetitions. However, his explanation for his edits appears in the afterword. I ended up baffled by the ellipses at the beginning, and searched through the book to find Wakefield’s explanation at the back. I do think that would have been better placed at the beginning of the collection.

A letter, written just for a specific person, conveys so much more of the writer’s personality than anything written for general public consumption like a blog post. And I do believe that the act of putting pen to paper makes a writer feel responsible to write something with thought behind it, unlike the many quick emails we dash off on a daily basis.

So all of you wonderful writers that I have addressed this review to, please, do your fans a favor and write some letters. Not emails, not blog posts, but real, honest to god, written thoughtfully on paper, LETTERS.

I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. 

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