A Rift in the Earth

Reston, James - A Rift in the Earth (1)A Rift in the Earth

by James Reston, Jr.

Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs conceived of a memorial to honor those who served in Vietnam and to catalyze the nation’s healing. His vision proceeded to completion as Congress approved of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the VVMF (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund) was established. The VVMF selected notable architect Paul Spreiregen, who hosted a weekly NPR program and had written extensively, as their advisor, and he created a contest and chose eight prominent jurors to select a design for the memorial. But when the panel chose Maya Lin’s black granite chevron design, they unknowingly shot the first volley in the Art Wars that rehashed the debate over the legitimacy of the Vietnam War and compromised the construction of the memorial itself.

A contingent of vocal Vietnam veterans, with support from billionaire Ross Perot, became the spokesmen of the opposition to Lin’s design which they saw as insulting to veterans, a means to “bury” them. Supporters ranged from those who thought the memorial would be a fitting site of reflection and healing to those who defended the design competition’s integrity and the artist’s right over the inviolability of her work.

To salvage the process, the Fine Arts Commission agreed to a compromise in which a realistic sculpture by Frederick Hart (“Three Soldier”) and a flagpole were added to the site of the memorial.

Once I started reading A Rift in the Earth, I realized how little I knew about the history of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. From Scrugg’s initial call for a monument to the design competition to the debate over Lin’s winning entry, Reston presents a well-researched narrative of the process leading to what is now known as one of the most stunning memorials and architectural achievements of the century. His profiles of key characters, particularly Maya Lin, Frederick Hart, and Tom Carhart are fascinating. Included are several illustrations with a color inset reproducing a selection of entries to the VVMF design competition.

Reston also includes a poignant postscript describing his relationship with his friend Ronald Ray, a serviceman who died in Hué, and his pilgrimage to Vietnam. In so doing, he provided insight into the ways that the Vietnamese honored their war veterans differently than we do here in the United States.

Even though the conclusion of the Art Wars was a forgone conclusion, I became caught up in the intrigue of the debate, the backroom negotiations, and the way a contingent of veterans appropriated the spotlight. While I never questioned the need or responsibility to honor the men and women who served, I was dumbfounded that figures as prominent as President Reagan argued that Vietnam was a “just war.”

The feminist implications of the debate and the racist language used to denigrate Lin are touched upon, but I would have liked to see more attention to this aspect of the debate. Additionally, the interplay between art and memory and who has the right to control public art is the key driver of the “Art Wars.” In the context of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the issue is discussed extensively, but I think Reston missed an opportunity to analyze the issue as it applies in other contexts.

A Rift in the Earth is a valuable contribution to the literature concerning the Vietnam War and covers a chapter not typically addressed, and I’m glad that I read it. It should appeal to those who are interested in the war’s lasting effects and to those who are interested in debates over public art.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial (National Park Service)

Virtual Gallery of Things Left at Vietnam Wall

Maya Lin Studio (Requires Flash)

Frederick Hart (Requires Flash)


Give Me Your Hand

IMG_7924Give Me Your Hand

by Megan Abbott

Set in the competitive world of STEM, Give Me Your Hand has been my favorite Megan Abbott book so far. Kit, the narrator, and Diane, first meet in high school where Diane inspires Kit to work harder and expand her ambitions. Kit helps Diane, who transferred in as a senior, feel less isolated. Their friendship elevates them both until, haunted by the words of Hamlet, Diane confesses an unforgivable secret to Kit. Burdened–infected–by her new knowledge, Kit withdraws from Diane, believing she will never see her again after graduation. But secrets don’t die so easily.

Twelve years later, Kit works as a postdoc in Dr. Severin’s biochemistry lab. She’s known as the hardest worker, the first to arrive every morning. And when Dr. Severin receives a prestigious NIH grant to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder, Kit believes her dedication, and, as the only female postdoc, maybe even her gender, will earn her one of the two spots available for researchers on the team. She even begins to feel a surge of confidence until Dr. Severin announces an addition to the laboratory–Diane Fleming. Diane’s arrival undercuts Kit’s self-assurance and dredges up past anguish. As the two compete for the coveted research spots, Kit wonders how far Diane would go to sabotage her, securing her a spot on the grant and ensuring her secret remains hidden.

At first, I feared the book would be based on the unfurling of Diane’s secret, with clues and red herrings doled out. Instead, the narrative focuses much more on why people keep secrets (if indeed they can) and what happens if they do. The book is well-written, expertly layered, and though-provoking. I found following the motifs and symbols through the book (blood, the color green, mirrors, Hamlet’s Ophelia) very fun and rewarding. And in an era where every psychological thriller or mysteries promises an unbelievable twist, the plot in Give Me Your Hand genuinely surprised me at times.

The novel highlights the challenges for women in male-dominated academic environments, and the sacrifices they must make, especially when the competition is so fierce no one can be trusted. I found it spoke to the need for providing quality education to all regardless of socio-economic status and demonstrated the additional burdens faced by poor students, from a lack of opportunity to a lack of equipment. The book also raised interesting questions about how we explain and justify our behavior.

You should read Give Me Your Hand if you like psychological thrillers, contemporary fiction, and writing about women. I’m sure you fall into one of those categories, so put the book on your reading list!

Author’s Website

True Life Inspiration (Spoilers if you click!)

Laurentian Divide

Stonich, Sarah - Laurentian DivideLaurentian Divide

by Sarah Stonich

From the first page, Laurentian Divide was a delight to read. Immediately, I felt a connection to the town of Hatchet Inlet and the characters that weave in and out of each other’s lives in the small Minnesota town near the Canadian border. In the book, Sissy and widower Alpo, twenty years her senior, prepare for their upcoming wedding. The town needs a celebration after a tragedy the fall before that rocked the community. Tragedy threatens the town again when Rauri Paar, the last private landowner in the Laurentian Reserve, fails to make his annual appearance at the beginning of spring. Pete, Alpo’s son, a recovering alcoholic, navigates his own minefield trying to stay sober.

Stonich writes beautifully, and she expertly creates a millieu believable and sympathetic. With good-natured humor and an appreciation for the foibles of Hatchet Inlet’s residents, she compellingly sketches themes surrounding trust, secrets, and forgiveness. Sissy, who has always worked at her family’s diner, questions her calling and attacks the future with determined persistence. Alpo, who was exempt from the Vietnam War due to his employment in a vital war industry, struggles to justify his dispensation. Peter, who has left a trail of devastation in his wake, must learn to live in a society with constant temptation.

The Laurentian Reserve, a million acres of wilderness, and a site of peace and renewal, provides the backdrop to the story, and a history of forty-years of conflict over land use represents a microcosm of environmental debates, and I like to think comes down on the side of protecting the land for future generations. One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the ubiquity of dogs and their presence as family members, exhibited most charmingly, by Jeff, Sissy’s dog, and in her mind, the most handsome man in town.

In Laurentian Divide, even the most peripheral characters matter, even if they don’t realize it, and are bound to the community. Their absence matters, and key events reverberate through the residents. Despite the challenges, they remain interconnected, and the novel concludes on a hopeful note.

When I was reading the book, it reminded me of Richard Russo, who also so skillfully renders small town living, and it wasn’t too surprising to me to later see that he had provided an endorsement for Laurentian Divide. It was truly a book I was sorry to finish. I didn’t want to leave the people of Hatchet Inlet.

Luckily for me, this is the second in a planned trilogy centered on the denizens of the area. I have not read the first, Vacationland, though I plan to, and I eagerly await the third.

Author’s Website

Thanks to Netgalley and the University of Minnesota Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Her Final Hour

Kovach, Carla - Her Final HourHer Final Hour

Gina Harte #2

by Carla Kovach

DI Gina Harte and her team investigate the murder of Melissa Sanderson, who seemingly had an ideal marriage, a perfect house, and a darling two-year-old daughter. At the same time, Ellie Redfern has returned to Cleevesford to confront the demons of her past. As these two cases converge, and Harte is attacked by an ominous man in a forensics suit and red mask, the investigative team wonders what is behind the veil of perfection portrayed by Darrel Sanderson, Melissa’s widow, and his friends.

This is the second book in the DI Gina Harte series, and the members of Harte’s team are the same, but it is not necessary to read The Next Girl to understand the plot. Gina is a determined, scrappy detective who was abused in a past relationship. I was thankful that her daughter, Hannah, was less present in this book because I found her annoying and unsympathetic in the previous entry to the series. When Melissa’s autopsy shows signs of past abuse, her history comes to the fore and provides even greater motivation for her to solve the case. Her co-workers, DCI Briggs, DS Wyre, DS Driscoll, and DS O’Connell receive little characterization.

The crimes themselves are creepy and somewhat intriguing, though what ties the cabal of friends surrounding the murder is not explained enough to fulfill my curiosity. I found the book an easy “clear the palate” read, but some aspects of the writing were not to my taste. For example, there are several sections with long lists of questions, and if you read my reviews, you know this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I also found that some of the writing was undeveloped with characteristics including not using contractions in dialogue when it would be appropriate, overlying on phrases like “how dare you!,” or having characters engage in knee-jerk reactions to anger or frustration with violence or thoughts of violence.

If you are looking for a quick, non-taxing read, Her Final Hour might be for you. Otherwise, there are more sophisticated options in the genre.

Thanks to Netgalley and Bookouture for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

A Place for Us

IMG_7721A Place for Us

by Fatima Farheen Mirza

An American-Indian Muslim family gathers for Hadia, the eldest daughter’s wedding, a match of love, and the family was as excited–and as nervous–to welcome Amar, youngest son, estranged from the family and out of touch for three years, as they are to witness the marriage. Unconventional in structure, the non-linear book is primarily told from the point of view of Hadia, Amar, and mother Layla, with memories as early as the first time Layla met her husband Rafiq. Key stories are told and revisited, such as Amar’s campaign for a pair of expensive red tennis shoes and his locker room encounter with angry students after 9/11. Amar chafes against the strictures imposed on him and feels isolated and misunderstood while Hadia strives to exceed expectations and become the ideal son. Huda, middle daughter, becomes lost in the wake of the close relationship between her siblings which is based as much in competition and jealousy as it is in love.

“Make no judgments where you have no compassion.”–Anne McCaffrey, Dragonquest

While reading A Place for Us, I kept reminding myself of the quote, “Make no judgments where you have no compassion.”–Anne McCaffrey, Dragonquest. I was challenged to find empathy and forgo judgement as I bristled against the strict Muslim guidelines constraining the behavior of the family at the core of the book. The rules regarding gender were particularly hard for me to understand, with women: the separation of men and women at mosque, during parties, even in the classroom; the rules regarding modesty and decorum; the focus on arranged marriage. When Layla wanted Hadia to eschew college and medical school in favor of a traditional marriage, it was difficult for me to feel anything other than disbelief though I tried to imagine evens from her perspective.

Fatima Farheen Mirza writes beautifully, and after reading the book, I feel absolutely gutted (and at the same time, sad that it’s over). The characters are entrenched in patterns that keep them from reaching out to each other, and they protect secrets instead of seek resolution. Both Amar and Hadia each think the other is the favorite child, and instead of making a connection, that false belief becomes a seed of resentment. Yet, there is hope, too. Rafiq hopes to send Amar a message: “There is another way. Come back, and we will make another path.”

A Place for Us is about a Muslim family navigating identity and the complicated ties that bind and separate them from each other, but it transcends the narrative to illuminate the love and anger, forgiveness and resentment, that all families must navigate.

Author’s Website

We Were the Lucky Ones

Hunter, Georgia - We Were the Lucky OnesWe Were the Lucky Ones

Georgia Hunter

Before Passover in 1939, Nechuma Kurc writes her son, Addy telling him of the changes to their town, Radom, and the nascent anti-Semitism under Nazi influence and advising him to stay in France rather than return to Poland for the holiday. Little do they know how much will change between their correspondence and the next time they see each other. In that time, the family–Nechuma and her husband Sol, daughters Mila and Halina, and sons Genek, Jakob, and Addy, endure singular struggles. Halina and her husband, Adam, try to pass as gentiles outside the Jewish ghettos. Nechuma and Sol take refuge hiding in a Polish family’s house. Mila, a single mother since her husband Selim hadn’t been heard from, tries to raise Felicia in the shadow of ward. Genek and his wife Herta are sent to a Siberian work camp. Jakob and his childhood love and recent wife, Bella, struggle through separation and depression. And Addy, a refugee, wonders where he will go when no countries want to admit Jews. Often, the family has no means to contact each other, and the uncertainty wears on them as much as the deprivation and horrors of war and persecution.

History repeats itself. This is one truth of which she is certain.

Though the Kurcs were lucky ones, their experiences highlight the plight of Polish Jews. I learned a lot from this well-researched novel even though it’s hard to imagine there could be even more harrowing details about Nazi depravity to be had. Additionally, I wasn’t familiar with the events in Poland under Soviet occupation. While Addy may seem most fortunate as he was able to leave Europe, his experiences as a refugee show how difficult it was to get visas and travel to safe harbors. Periodically, the novel includes “bulletins,” brief capsules summarizing the war. Again, these contributed to my comprehension of events, particularly the ones related to Poland, like the Warsaw uprising. Snippets of language–Polish, German, French, Russian, Italian, and Portuguese–enhance the authenticity of the narrative.

Hunter based the novel on her family’s experience, and it’s definitely a story worth telling. At the same time, the framework provided some limitations. First, the point of view shifted among the Kurc family, and at times, the number of narrators and settings made the flow of the book somewhat choppy. At the same time, characters outside the nuclear family, like Halina’s husband, Adam, who worked for the underground as a counterfeiter, intrigued me, but readers heard about his activities only as Halina reported them. Felicia who begins the novel as a child, has some sections from her point of view, and they were jarring to me because their maturity was too developed for a two- or three-year-old. All of the characters–the Allied characters anyway–were basically written as good people, well-intentioned, kind, and generous. I wondered if the impulse to smooth over any unpleasant characterizations related to Hunter’s family ties or as compensation for the terror they experienced.

One intriguing element to the story is that after the war began, the family was led not by patriarch Sol but by youngest daughter, Halina. Her drive to protect her family accentuates the tension between being assertive and taking control of the situation while living in conditions where the characters had little control. The book also tracks how an upper-middle class family loses material possessions but thrives on hope and belonging. Of course, the possessions are helpful on the black market or to bribe authority figures. On the other hand, a need for food or safety can catalyze betrayal.

As the novel begins with a Seder, it ends with a Seder and the celebration of family. While the Kurcs had a happy ending, they were not unscathed by the war or the holocaust. This book is a testament to their experience and that of millions of others not as lucky. We Were the Lucky Ones is worth reading to remember and honor them.

Author’s Website

What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Berns - What It's Like to Be a Dog.pngWhat It’s Like to Be a Dog and Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

by Gregory Burns

After the mission to kill Osama bin Laden was made public, neuroscientist Gregory Berns thought about Cairo, the dog who rappelled with his handler from a helicopter into the desert compound in Pakistan. If a dog could be trained in that context, surely Berns could train dogs to enter an MRI machine for a scan. The Dog Project was born. Starting with his dog Callie and using a mock MRI tube and coils, he began training dogs. The dogs were not sedated or restrained and were given the respect according to human subjects–the right to refuse, which some did.

Working with Peter Cook and other colleagues, Berns developed innovative and well-designed studies that revealed aspects of the dog’s brain structure and provided insight into their mental processes. Investigating self-control, preferences, and even emotion recognition, over and over, Berns discovered that humans and dogs shared the same brain structures and that they functioned in the same way. Berns’ interest in dog neuroscience extended to other animals as well. He scanned the brains of sea lions, dolphins, and Tasmanian devils and the extinct Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine). The results Berns shares here provide insight not just into dog neurology, consciousness, and behavior, but into other animals as well, including human animals. We are much more similar than different, and, as Berns anticipated, the “inevitable” result of the studies is a necessary questioning of how we use and abuse animals and their habitats.

I loved What It’s Like to Be a Dog, thought I have to admit that this book appeals to my interests as a dog guardian, animal lover, and animal rights supporter. Even if you do not fall into all or even one of these categories, the book is worth reading. While I thought this might be a rather light-hearted summary of Bern’s research, I was proven wrong. I learned so much about brain structure and function across species. Though the concepts are complicated, Berns writes in an engaging and straightforward manner that make the scientific descriptions easy to follow. Berns summarizes his own research which is innovative and well-designed, and the book itself is well-researched, drawing on the most recent studies. While Berns is excellent recounting the science, he is at his best when describing the dogs who participated in the research. His love for them is clear, and there’s nothing I love more than someone who loves dogs.

Berns’ concludes that research has not yet show that animals are self-aware, but there is no question they are sentient, and he criticizes how we approach animals as property. His analysis only supports my personal beliefs, but this may be controversial for some readers who have a utilitarian approach to the use of animals in research and food production. Although this is definitely a science book, it is completely relatable, and more than once, I was brought to tears. A description of the last Tasmanian Tiger’s final days in an Australian zoo absolutely gutted me, and I had to skip a few paragraph when Berns recounts his experience at his medical school’s dog lab.

The book is illustrated with photographs of the MRI dogs in action as well as some of the brain scans, the former adorable and the latter intriguing. I did wish that there had been an diagram showing the regions of the brain since Berns often referred to different areas. With the title and cover image, I was primed for a book on dogs, so I was surprised to read about sea lions and marsupials, but I welcomed the perspective these studies provided.

Whether you love dogs, enjoy reading about cutting-edge science, or are an animal rights advocate, you should read What It’s Like to Be a Dog. You will learn as much about your own brain as about those of our animal relatives.

Thank you to Netgalley and Basic Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

What is your dog thinking? (YouTube)

Author Website

IMG_7305 (Edited)

The Good Son

The Good SonThe Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Han Yu-Jin awakens to the smell of blood and images of a crimson umbrella, yellow streetlights, a drunk man singing, and a tarpaulin waving in the wind. He finds himself covered in blood, with bloody footprints between his bed and bedroom door. As he descends the stairs, he sees more blood, and then the petite feet of a woman who was murdered by a slash to her throat. An epileptic, Yu-jin suffers side effects from his medication and often stops taking them. He had been off his pills and the previous night had a seizure. He couldn’t remember what happened or why a woman’s body was in the apartment he shared with his mother and adopted brother, Kim Hae-jin. He reviews possible suspects: an intruder, his mother, his brother, or even himself. Desperate for answers, Yu-jin begins a search for the truth that takes him deep into his childhood and his relationship with his family.

The Good Son is a fascinating psychological thriller told by an unreliable narrator who gradually and unexpectedly uncovers the events leading up to the woman’s murder. It includes frequent flashbacks, but the present day timeline unfolds in a relatively small geographical area (mostly in the apartment with some forays into the neighborhood) and a limited cast of characters. I thought this was an interesting choice and it contributed to a sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and dread. I haven’t read many books out of South Korea, and I found the setting intriguing, particularly the cultural norms around family and obedience. Comparing a psychological thriller by a South Korean author versus one from the United States or Europe was thought-provoking.

For the most part, the writing was engaging, but I did think the author relied too much on lists of questions. A litany of questions is one of my pet peeves in novels. Personally, I find it lazy and would rather the author find a way to describe the conundrum rather than simply capture it in the form of a question.

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Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls - Jes Baker (1)Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living

by Jes Baker

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls was a surprisingly difficult book for me. I’ve been thoroughly brainwashed by society’s messages about fat bodies. Fat people are gross, lazy, undeserving, shouldn’t do this/shouldn’t do that… and I speak as a person in that category! Consequently, I am probably the perfect audience for this book. As I intellectually understood and accepted Baker’s arguments, a voice in the back of my head still kept saying, You still need to lose weight. So, I have work to do, and this book is an excellent place to begin.

The style of the book probably is familiar to readers of Jes Baker’s blog, The Militant Baker, but I’d never read it before. Baker takes an irreverent, humorous approach–though never a belittling one–to the subject matter. Words in all caps, exclamation marks, and asides populate the book. In some contexts, I would not like the style, but here is it fitting. It feels intimate and personal.

In the book, Baker discusses the concept and need for body love and argues that embracing body love can positively impact the individual as well as society at large because it promotes empathy, acceptance, and compassion. So often, overweight people, especially women, have a litany of dreams they will accomplish–when they lose weight that is. As a result, we are often in a limbo of inaction. Baker urges readers starting to live now to not wait, even if that means becoming vulnerable. Baker traces the history of cultural meaning attached to fatness–in the past, and currently in some cultures, being fat is idolized–and explains the historical context that created the feminine mystique, the beauty myth, and today’s focus on health and wellness. She’s quick to explain that health isn’t the problem–an obsessive approach that stifles activity in other areas of life is an issue.

One of the most revealing chapters discussed the relationship between obesity and health. I’d always thought that fatness was related to diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, and high blood pressure. I thought of an old commercial for Jenny Craig where a husband and son approach the mother–they want her to lose weight because they care about her, they want her to have a long life. It sounds reasonable. What I didn’t know was those health problems–those are more likely to be caused by yo-yo dieting than obesity. Fat and thin people can be healthy, just as fat and thin people can be unhealthy. I also really enjoyed the chapter on body currency which postulated that the vitriol from trolls against happy, visible fat women comes in part due to sexism but also because of the idea that most people have bought into society’s standards about weight and have invested in them. Women who flout those beauty standards have in effect “cut in line”–they’ve achieved happiness without the investment. Of course, they are probably not very happy themselves.

So what to do? Baker has several suggestions: takes selfies both to increase your self-esteem and to expand representation of diverse bodies. She promotes affirmations based on neuroplasticity, the science that indicates brains can be “rewired.” Her chapter on mental health has valuable information for people of all sizes and orientations. A chapter on fashion encourages readers to wear whatever the fuck they want, and it’s particularly fun because it recounts her offensive against Abercrombie and Fitch and her response to Lane Bryant’s #IMNOANGEL advertising campaign.

Baker realizes her position of privilege as a white woman who is overweight but still has the desired hourglass figure. She acknowledges and invites diverse readers to voice their experiences, and she embraces this in the book by including a number of brief guest essays from women of color, trans men, fat men, and experts in medicine and sex including Sonya Renee Taylor of the Body is Not an Apology.

My quibbles with the book are few. One thought I had was that the chapter on the history that villainized being fat could have been better documented, though given the constraints of the book, what Baker wrote–a high level introduction–isn’t unreasonable and invites further research. I also wished the book included pictures. Baker references cartoons and images, such as those she created in response to Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO Mike Jeffries, who was unapologetic when criticized for not offering larger women’s sizes. Admittedly, the relevant images aren’t too difficult to find online, but I thought that including reproductions would have enhanced the book.

I think anyone and everyone who has ever felt insecure about their bodies (and who hasn’t?) should read this book and use it as a springboard for further thinking and investigation as well as inspiration to take up space, be loud, and love your body.