Thursday, July 11, 2019

Tap Out by Edgar Kunz

I frequently view the new non-fiction portion of our library, particularly at the Dewey number 811, to flip through the recently published American poetry.  During this last winter, I was greatly disappointed, and I almost wrote a review tearing apart a new author’s book, which will remain unnamed; however, I learned that if I have nothing good to say then do not write a review about it.  I did not give up hope for contemporary poets, and this month, I was not disappointed when I picked up Edgar Kunz's Tap Out (2019).  Immediately with the epigraph, I knew this book would be wonderfully traumatic.

Kunz’s poems navigate through memories and trauma of an alcoholic father in and out of lives, brothers beating the crap out of each other in the back yard for fun, mothers scraping barely by, and the pain and injury growing up.  The visceral imagery woven in the suffering gives a familiar feeling of one’s own injury, but the absurdity of the speakers’ lives help separate the personal away from the page.  No better explanation of future damage is where Kunz writes, “We learned new moves, new ways to shock the body/into miracles of pain” (“Tap Out” p. 18).  Trauma varies from person to person, and we quickly forget the sensation of pain. Tap Out delivers subtle reminders of some of that deep-stomached hurt from failed relationships, sweat and body aches during miserable jobs, and hunger pains of not knowing when the next meal may come.

The poems of Tap Out are cold, damaged, and sharp, so if you are looking for something light and fun, I am sorry, but this is not for you.  On the other hand, though the themes and the general feelings of the book are harsh, Kunz demonstrates excellent care in the poetics of the book.  A powerful poem of the collection titled “Graduation” exhibits Kunz’s fantastic writing.  The first several lines are:

"When you showed up drunk as hell, humming

tunelessly to yourself, and slumped against

the auditorium’s faux-wood paneling – when

you fumbled in the pockets of your coat,

fished out a cigarette, brought it to your lips,

then, realizing for the first time where you were," (“Graduation” p22)

Kunz writes with well-placed enjambment and punctuation, drawing the reader to cascade into the next line of a familiar tale of an absent, drunk father.  In this poem, the speaker is so glad the father comes to the graduation, even though the father is hammered, making a spectacle of himself, and shows the same exhausting and perpetual, dangerous behavior.  The speaker does not ask the reader for sympathy, just tells of a public occurrence, hating to love a harmful father.

I highly recommend Edgar Kunz’s Tap Out, solely because it is brilliant.  The pain and suffering the speakers present are not overly graphic, but the use of the environment helps solidify the cold and harsh atmosphere of this book.  Although this book draws the reader into memories of shared trauma, the naturalist style of Kunz reminds us that life has injuries, but it is where we get away from it matters most.  -Patrick

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Popular lore tells us that pirates were scary, dangerous villains. Pirate captains, in particular, we’ve come to know, were unhinged despots fond of violently punishing their crew for the slightest infraction or to assert and maintain their dominance. (I’m assuming, also, that it’s their bloodthirsty, chaotic temperaments and proclivity towards violence that makes them, along with Dracula and Frankenstein, appropriately frightening Halloween costumes.) So, thanks to years of exposure to all the wildly popular books and movies portraying pirates as villains – and actual monsters – the stigmas all seem to be ironclad. If only a professional historian could rescue us from our conditioned misunderstandings. One like, oh, esteemed maritime historian Marcus Rediker who has been trying for decades to contextualize and set the record on pirates straight. He’s written a few on the topic, but I think Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (2014) qualifies as one of his best.

In Outlaws, Rediker uses various primary sources to show how pirates were not the archetypical “bad guys” we now know them as – selfish scoundrels who just wanted to steal a bunch of money to support their lazy lifestyles. In reality, many were former victims of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of navy and merchant captains. They chose piracy when given the opportunity because it offered them more freedom and democratic control over their lives, an element of agency whereas serving with an official navy offered servitude and, often, an even higher chance of death. Navy and merchant ships and their captains were often far more despotic than their pirate counterparts. Pirates, often bitter from years of such abuse, employed various checks and balances to prevent centralized power in the hands of one man. Pirate ships, as a result, were far more democratic than navy and merchant vessels. They elected (and I emphasize elected!) their Quartermaster and gave him “countervailing powers” to the captain’s. Pirate crews, for that matter, often voted on the ship’s captain. Captains were not akin to a ship’s CEO or even manager. Should a captain step out of line or abuse his granted powers and the crew could ditch him on a deserted island, if not kill him outright. Pirates, it turns out, had an immense amount of agency on their ships and strove for as much equal treatment as possible. Who’d have thought?

An element I always try to include in my reviews is the author’s writing style, and it deserves some recognition here, too. Rediker has talked in the past about how he aims to write for as broad an audience as possible, a rather uncommon trait for academic writers. He avoids academic jargon altogether, but he does a great job explaining and providing ample detail as he goes along. As a result of not only his writing style but also his focus as a social historian, his chapters are stacked with interesting information that many other historians probably would exclude.

The longstanding representation of pirates as murderous thugs, menaces to society completely out for their own gain at anybody’s expense, comes across as a little insulting when you start to see what the primary sources tell us. Rediker (and, now, numerous modern maritime historians) chronicle how pirates were by and large hard working professional sailors who had grown resentful against oppressive maritime systems. Merchant and royal navy ships cared little for their sailors, and the men who escaped those ships were not rushing to put themselves into similarly bleak circumstances. Rediker, already an influential social historian, employs an impressive intellectual historical approach to show what pirates thought of themselves, their situations, and their roles in the world they inhabited. It’s interesting stuff and entirely approachable because his writing style never bogs you down. So “Avast ye landlubbers!!,” or something, and enjoy.  -Joe

Reserve this title.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Craeft: an inquiry into the origins and true meaning of traditional crafts by Alex Langlands

In Craeft, English archeologist turned farmer Alex Langlands takes a multilayered and nuanced look at humanity’s lost traditional skills. Langlands makes the argument that these skillsets—from making hay and thatching roofs to basket weaving and leatherwork—form a lost social and environmental connection between humans, the landscapes they inhabit, and the tools and resources they utilize.

First, we have to establish what a craft—or in its original Middle English usage, craeft—really is. It is a rather nebulous term that somehow elevates a mere series of actions to a skill, a cultural knowledge, and mind-body connection between humans, the materials they utilize, and the environment they live and work within. Making hay in the sense of cutting and stacking isn’t craeft. But the knowledge of a particular valley in England, of knowing what grasses specifically grow there, the most opportunistic time to cut for prime nutrition in the winter months, and how to gather and stack in a way that a free-standing pile will naturally wick water away to keep the inner hay fresh and unspoiled—that turns into craeft. Or, for another example, the craeft of hedging and stonewalling, where hyper-regional varieties of trees and stones are traditionally used, with an entire cultural knowledge base in each region responding to the local materials’ strengths and weaknesses.

Langlands breaks down the social and cultural history of making hay, weaving (for roofs, fencing, baskets, clothing, and more), building with wood and stone, traditional skep beekeeping, thatching, leatherwork and more. Although he does dive into the nitty-gritty details, he does so in a way that feels more conversational than academic treatise. A secondary aspect weaving throughout the narrative is the deep environmental connections these traditional crafts bring. Each skillset discussed is unique, creating a wide variety within a single craeft that accounts for local needs, materials, and environmental factors. Through these very physical materials, he explores a larger social and cultural evolution that is absolutely fascinating. This is a more niche subject, but if you enjoy looking at humans and how we fit in the world, now and in the past, Craeft is an immersive and enjoyable read. -Carla

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

A few months ago, my mother told me about a delightful new series she and my dad were watching on Netflix called Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (I’m sure many of you have at least heard of it, if not seen it). She expressed how meaningful and fun she found it to be, giving it high accolades. I will admit, I didn’t think much of it except “Oh, that’s cool” before carrying on my merry way. I regret not giving it my immediate attention. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. A friend of mine expressed his interest in the show and asked if I’d like to watch it with him. I soon realized that this was the series my mother was talking about. You know what? She was right! It IS delightful.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had to learn more about Marie and the “KonMari Method” she engineered. This method is unpacked in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Marie’s approach to tidying/decluttering is unlike any other approach I’ve explored. She recognizes that most people have such a difficult time gaining control over their belongings for various reasons. Some of these reasons might include (but are definitely not limited to):

  • There’s not enough time in the day.
  • It’s painful to let things go.
  • These things might come in handy someday (I used to hoard art supplies for this very reason. I still kind of do, but I’ve gotten considerably better, thanks to Marie). 
  • Parents can’t keep up with the messes their children make.
  • The clutter is so overwhelming that it seems pointless to even bother with it.

People (myself included) who fall under any of these criteria are perfect candidates for her process because she teaches us, her students, how to conquer these insecurities. If you have kids, get them involved in the process with you! It is very “step-by-step.” Everything is categorized in order to make the task of tidying up less daunting. She emphasizes to keep only the things that “spark joy” for you. To determine this, you hold the object in your hands and if you feel a burst of happy energy, then it still has a meaningful purpose in your life going forward. What I absolutely LOVE is the fact that to her, our belongings, in a way, have souls and feelings. We should not feel ashamed to let things go because the object in question served a purpose in its own way. As you let it go, thank it for what it has done for you.

I also love the emphasis she places on folding when she discusses clothing. It turns out that I have been storing my socks in the most unforgivable way imaginable. For my whole life, I’ve basically just balled them together and threw them in my sock drawer. To that, Marie says NO. When you fold your clothes, you should connect with them. They have worked hard to protect you all day and you should respect them because of that. Below is a photo of my sock drawer after I folded all of my socks the KonMari way. I must say, this truly sparks joy for me. After doing so, I’ve caught myself numerous times opening my drawer just because. I love being able to actually SEE my eclectic collection and it makes choosing a pair something I look forward to every morning. I like to think Marie would be proud.

What I have shared with you today is just the mere tip of the iceberg. To truly get a grasp on her process and start implementing her methods, read this book and watch her show on Netflix. She also wrote a companion book called Spark Joy, which acts more as a manual/masterclass with more in depth explanations, illustrations, and diagrams. I have yet to read this book myself, but it is at the top of my “Books to Read Next” list.

Happy reading, watching, and TIDYING! -Lena

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life By Eric Klinenberg

Author Eric Klinenberg was interviewed for the “99% Invisible” podcast in March about this book, and as a librarian, I immediately wanted to know more about his viewpoint about libraries. While that intrigued me, the book contains more fascinating discussion about the other physical places that Klinenberg calls “social infrastructure”, and what they do for their communities.

The term “Palaces for the People” was a quote from industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who gave away a good deal of his vast fortune to build libraries in communities large and small. As an immigrant himself, he saw libraries as somewhere where anyone could learn enough to get ahead in the world. The catch was that he would build the buildings, but the local community had to agree to fill, staff and support it for the good of all the people who lived there.

Klinenberg’s contention is that communities can likewise build shared spaces where people from different walks of life can come together and find common purposes. In a time of deep divisions among racial, cultural and religious lines, these would be places where connections can be made. These connections can sometimes even save lives, as in the Chicago heat-wave of 1995, where socially isolated people were far more likely to die.

He sees this social infrastructure as a means to make communities cohesive, to make people care about the people that they see on a regular basis. He argues that this infrastructure is as real and necessary as the roads and utilities that make up a community’s physical infrastructure.

The shared spaces include childcare centers, bookstores, worship spaces, parks, walking trails and even bars and restaurants. Any of these places encourage people of all stripes to come together, to stay for a while, and meet or at least encounter familiar faces on a regular basis. These connections strengthen neighborhoods, to the point of improving safety, reducing crime and drug use, and decreasing isolation of the elderly. The research indicates that negative behaviors in such areas actually decrease rather than move elsewhere. When such connections are missing, residents must depend solely on themselves.

Klinenberg talks about the “broken windows” theory of crime that is the basis for community policing in much of the country. The theory is that when communities crack down on the small crimes, that overall crime rates will be reduced. Klinenberg uses a different example from Philadelphia, where the city pulled down a number of derelict properties and made pocket parks out of them. This brought other people into the area, rather than causing them to avoid it. Gun violence in these areas went down by over 40%.

Palaces for the People is a thoughtful look at how cities and towns can use physical structures and institutions to make themselves a more welcoming place where residents feel safe and part of the community.  -Dee Ann

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Deadwood (2004-2006, TV-MA)

So I'm a little behind on my television viewing!

This is a series that has been on my "want to watch" list for a long time, and finally, spurred by the news of the reunion movie which recently aired on HBO, we sat down with our library's discs and gave it a binge.  I'm very glad that we did.

Deadwood offers a portrait of the infamous Deadwood, South Dakota, a gold-rush boomtown just on the cusp of major change in 1876.  The story begins in this year by introducing the viewer to an array of new arrivals to the town, including retired Montana marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) who plan to open the first hardware store in the area; an east-coast society lady, Mrs. Alma Garret (Molly Parker), who has accompanied her dandy-ish husband (Tim Omundson) to the town in hopes of buying a lucrative claim; and Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), along with his friends Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane Canary (Robin Weigert).  These newcomers must stake their places amid the raucous town's inhabitants, many of whom have thrived during its lawless hayday, whether by striking it rich on their claims or by providing lodging, drink, gambling, and prostitutes to the miners who crowd the thoroughfare.  Chief among these is Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), owner of The Gem, a bar and brothel that is the heart of the town.

As you might guess from this summary--which really just scratches the surface of all of the characters and plots that make up the series' 3-year run--Deadwood is an ensemble piece in which the milieu of the town, its constant bustle and life, is as important as its featured citizens.  Historical figures and fictional ones mix together on its streets, creating a tumultuous stew from the clash of "Wild West" myths and their seedier realities, heated by encroaching civilization and the necessities of history.

One of the great delights of watching the series is its use of language, which becomes increasingly heightened as the story progresses, reaching in its best moments a profane poetry that has often been labeled Shakespearean. In fact, creator David Milch consciously used iambic pentameter, along with other Elizabethan devices such as soliloquies and contrasting groups of rustic characters (the dialogue is often quite funny) with their higher-born counterparts.  The artifice of the language plays up the divide between the historical truth of the town and the show's dramatic interpretation of it.

Also surprising, to me, is how well-rounded so many of the characters become, given the limits of available screen-time for the show's large cast.  While some, such as Charlie Utter, Calamity Jane, and Brad Dourif's Doc Cochran, endeared themselves to me quickly, even the most thuggish of minor characters proved capable of revealing hidden humanity or depth.  In this talented, deep ensemble of actors, Ian McShane's unforgettable performance as Al Swearengen is perhaps the most surprising of all.  He is initially presented as a villain, a cold-blooded murderer, thief and pimp, and, make no mistake, he is all of these things.  But over time, as his history and motives are explored, he grows in complexity.  By the end he towers over the series, just as he stands so often on the balcony of the Gem, looking upon all the goings on of his town.

Having praised the series thus, I do have to add the usual cautions.  Deadwood is rated TV-MA, and it earns its "for mature audiences only" rating.  I believe I mentioned the profanity above?  It also has moments of strong violence (though overall, I'd say less than Game of Thrones), nudity and sexual scenes.  The series' initial run was cut short when HBO cancelled it after its third season, and as a result, its end feels abrupt and not entirely satisfying, with both loose plot threads and some characters whose developing stories were never realized.  I understand that the revival movie both catches up to the town on the eve of South Dakota's becoming a state in 1889, and brings closure to the series.  Even with these cautions and quibbles, I highly recommend the show to devotees of Western history, Shakespearean drama, and character-driven fiction.  You won't forget your trip to Deadwood anytime soon.   -Barb

Reserve this series.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Here by Richard McGuire

One of the most challenging questions is “What is considered literature?”  In the most diverse age called the 21st Century, art and literature push boundaries farther than any previous era.  One incredible medium serving as literature, whose roots derive from the 19th and 20th century, is the graphic novel.  Many believe graphic novels are comics containing superheroes presented in a cartoonish manner.  There are graphic novels of comic superheroes like Batman, Superman, Captain America, or Tin-Tin, which have cult followings, but graphic novels can also explore more in their condensed images than most 1000 page novels.  Graphic novels serve a significant role in both the art and literature world, blending imagery and language to deliver complex ideas and evokes emotions to the reader.  Of the more challenging graphic novels, that which pushes boundaries even further than its predecessors, is Here by Richard McGuire (2014).

This multifaceted graphic novel explores time through the visualization of a single corner of a typical family home.  McGuire creates a space of a home that will transform through time, from its original existence circa 3,000,500,000 BCE to 2313 CE.  Dispersed in each page spread McGuire develops panels giving a view of what the room and characters look in that particular year layered with other years.

In comics, there is the term “closure.”  This means that the reader’s mind makes up the gaps in between the panel.  The artist does not have to detail every movement of a character because the reader can understand that. For instance, when a person jumps, they bend their knees and then explode their legs straight to gain height off the ground.  The artist does not have to frame-by-frame show from the standing position and all movements involved to jump; the artist can show knees bent in one panel and then the character in the air in the next.  This “closure” happens in the space known as the “gutter,” the areas between the panels.  Some panels are side by side to relate to each other, while other panels are distant to incorporate time and space.  The gutter is a magical space within which pretty much anything can happen, until the artist makes a narrative connection between the panels.

Knowing this, we can see how McGuire uses “closure” in a peculiar and challenging way.  Each page is a different snapshot of the locale from different times, incorporating layered past and future instances (see example picture). What is excellent about McGuire’s style is that it can give a narrative of different events through a single layered scene.  Creating a fragmented yet constant Halloween party, this scene portrays different years (time) in one location (space) with different ages and costumes.  The use of images and panels allows a moment happening at various times to take place at one single moment, making the event fluid.  Because the “gutters” are actually 1971, there is no pure panel-to-panel “closure.”  Instead, McGuire compounds time into a single instance, and defies the concepts of past, present, and future.

Though this graphic novel is challenging, and may not appeal to everyone, it is a strong demonstration on how capital L- Literature is produced for studying and enjoying.  Though the graphic novel does not give prose or long narrative detailing minute details of a tea-cup drama, it encourages the unique essence upon which a novel thrives: The Reader’s Imagination.  McGuire’s Here may not make a lot of sense at first, but the more one dives into it the more it becomes meaningful, developing a unique personal experience.  -Patrick