GHOST SONGS: A MEMOIR by Regina McBride

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Ghost Songs: A Memoir
By Regina McBride
Tin House Books — October 2016
ISBN 9781941040430 — 350 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


One dividend that comes from reviewing a wide spectrum of books (particularly when starting out) is that occasionally I discover a completely unexpected positive experience. Case in point: Tin House sends out a general call for interested readers in advanced review copies. I respond, with no particular idea of what they will send. But reading their literary journal regularly, I know to at least expect quality, whatever it may be. It’s what I precisely like about them, they publish a wide range of content, not eschewing genre, so long as it’s good.
And in my mail arrives Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride. I think I audibly sighed in disappointment. Of all the possibilities, I got one of the few kinds of literary works that I didn’t think I could appreciate much, even if done exceptionally well. I appreciate history and biography. My skepticism rises a bit if it’s an autobiography. But memoir? I actually don’t know as I’ve ever before read anything that qualifies as memoir. It has always seemed suspect to me — too loose in its organization, style, and possibly even facts. I didn’t know a single thing about the author, so I looked in hopes that perhaps the topics/themes would be something familiarly enticing. But I saw things like: Ireland, poetry, mental health… sigh. Most of the description left me indifferent, but poetry — I rarely seem to feel emotional connection or resonance with poetry.
Nevertheless, I picked this memoir up and began reading, convincing myself that at the very least I would have a new experience, a chance to learn and momentarily extend my zone of reading comfort. Against all my intuition, I rapidly became engrossed in McBride’s beautiful, reflective writing, in a world of unfamiliar thoughts and experiences far from the focus of my typical reading. The cover blurb by Alice Sebold is definitely hyperbole. But the sentiment is  precisely accurate. In Ghost Songs McBride weaves a tapestry of family, individuality, culture, and grief with a melancholy, fragile prose. Organized frequently as short paragraphs, her phrases echo the flow and tide of memory, driven by association and sense rather than time.
The memoir begins with an eighteen-year-old McBride, talking to a psychologist about the ghosts that haunt her, the uncertainty of who she is, and the weight of genetics and experience that define her. McBride’s parents both died by their own hands, suicides separated by a mere five months, mother following father. Coming from a culture of strict Irish Catholicism, the McBrides all share common pressures of guilt, depression, and a frequent struggle to continue on. Regarding the moment after her father’s suicide McBride writes:
“I sit on the floor of my old bedroom, listening to my mother on the phone in her room making funeral arrangements. My father has done something irreparable. There is a new trajectory in place. Every cell and every particle around me knows how things will end. Every bright dust mote rushing through the sunlight and disappearing in shadow rings with inevitability. The house, the furniture, the trees, my brother and my sisters, even my mother — we all know, but it is not possible to accept this and keep going.” — (p. 90).
The mention of ‘every cell and every particle’ in this quote bears specific mention. One of the recurring themes in Ghost Songs that did resonate with me (because of my science background surely) is McBride’s use of the molecular — in some instances more precisely quantum — as metaphor. In spots, the concept is utilized for viewing events as composed of an infinite number of smaller moments, paring down burdensome trials into short, bearable units. Even if tragedy makes this hard to achieve.

“…‘When you work on a play, you have to look at the dramatic arc. You break it down into manageable parts, into beats. See how every event leads to the next.’

…But it is as though each death were an explosion that erased the connections between things. In my mind a fizzing whiteness hovers, particles refusing to settle.” — (p. 85).

Yet it is poetry that seems to be the most effective means of coping that McBride can utilize to find comfort and feel peace from the ghosts of her past. Given her Irish heritage this comes particularly from the poetry of Yeats and the mythology of her homeland. Ghost Songs culminates with McBride’s pilgrimage to Ireland and the self discoveries she makes there while searching for a personal Tír na nÓg. In poetic irony, this comfort ultimately comes from the same source as all of her pain: genetic and cultural inheritance, with her father’s appreciation of poetry. Recalling a moment with him, McBride describes a mosquito landing on her father and his allowing it to bite him. McBride then crushes it and her father comments:
“Some of that is your blood” — (p. 232).
He then references The Flea, a poem by John Donne. McBride relates:

“I tremble with hopefulness, the lines suggesting a closeness between the poem and the person being addressed. A poem might help heal the rift between us.” — (p. 232).

I don’t think I ever completely emotionally connected to elements of Ghost Songs as many readers might. Those with a fascination/experience with Irish American culture, with Yeats, or those who suffer from depression or other related issues might find the memoir strongly resonant. Nevertheless, I could see, feel, and believe the emotional effects these elements have on McBride. I won’t be chasing after more memoirs to read, but I’m certainly more open to trying them than I was previously, and I’m reminded of how beneficial it can be to just give something a try, no matter the preconceived notions. I will certainly recognize the name Regina McBride when I see it again, and I will gladly dig into the writing it appears above. As long as it’s not poetry. Well, maybe even then.
“A particular memory preoccupies me… My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.” — (pp. 3 – 4).

“I sit up in the darkness in my room in Dublin and cry because I miss my mother. I cry because my mother died without a face.” — (p. 290).

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES, by Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
(La Déesse des petites victoires)
By Yannick Grannec
(Translated by Willard Wood)
Other Press – October 2014
ISBN 9781590516362 – 464 Pages – Hardback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE

“In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

THE DOORS YOU MARK ARE YOUR OWN, by Okla Elliott & Raul Clement

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The Doors You Mark Are Your Own
By Okla Elliott and Raul Clement
Dark House Press – 28th April 2015
ISBN 9781940430201 – 724 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


The Historical Literary Epic Meets the Post-Apocalyptic Future
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is the first part of an ambitious amalgam of literary fiction spliced with post-apocalyptic and historical genres. Written by Elliott and Clement with the conceit that they are ‘translating’ a historical account written in ‘Slovnik’ by the fictional Aleksandr Tuvim, the saga reads on one level as an engrossing biography and social commentary of a speculative, future city-state. On another level it contains rich, interconnected character-driven narratives. Balancing epic world-building and other science fiction genre traits with literary depth, the authors take some of the best elements from across literature to fashion an addictively entertaining novel…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

BEETHOVEN: ANGUISH AND TRIUMPH, by Jan Swafford

18222670Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
By Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – 5th August 2014
ISBN 9780618054749 – 1077 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


Passing a whopping 1000 pages (okay, around 900 minus the extensive endnotes) this Beethoven biography just kept me enraptured. Enough that I kept lugging the hardback to read at the bus stop and on the bus into work each day. Getting into work I began back diluting cultures to the compositions I had just been reading about. From this you can tell that Swafford has written a readable and inspiring biography of the Ludwig van.
Covering the totality of Beethoven’s life, Swafford also nicely givens contextual background from what is known about his immediate ancestors to the cultural and historical events that swirled around both locally and internationally. At times the biographical details on Beethoven’s benefactors seems a bit too detailed, though they are mostly discussed to highlight the ups and downs of Beethoven’s support, why he was appreciated by the upper class of the time and the limits of even their lifestyles to continuously supply patronage.
What really makes this lengthy biography work is that it isn’t merely a biography of Beethoven the person, but also Beethoven the composer in the sense that a good amount of space is spent both describing the process by which his major works were created and critique of the music itself. Swafford nicely attempts (and largely succeeds) at taking a step back from the long history of viewing Beethoven as a genius to to look objectively at his achievements.
For fans of classical music, serious or just vaguely familiar, this biography and discussion of his music will probably be appreciated. The musical analysis was at times more advanced than the basic music theory/history I was familiar with, but Swafford also does a fair job of explaining so that even the non professional musician will understand the main points, and a newbie will likely learn some wonderful things about music in general and about distinctions between different approaches (eras) of what is all lumped together as ‘classical’. In addition to covering the style of Beethoven’s output, Swafford also covers the basics of his contemporaries, particularly those he learned from.
If you are thinking about reading this but aren’t sure whether to commit to such a large work you can get a fair idea the whole thing by just reading a few chapters (interspersed with listening to some recordings I’d recommend). The first couple chapters are more laden with biography compared to a larger amount of musical focus further in, but you should still get a fair idea of Swafford’s scope and style.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 1400069726
432 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 1st July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I used to know a fair amount about the Civil War and Sherman, but not having read much about it in years, many things had slipped my mind. Having lived in St. Louis for a good time and knowing Sherman’s connection to the city I was interested in giving this biography a read. Overall it is a fascinating and very approachable volume, never getting bogged down in too many details and presenting the history and personalities in an engaging style. While not skimping on details and analysis, O’Connell effectively avoids academic tones, relating a good deal in almost conversational fashion. The writing makes it clear that he is really interested in this story and the character of Sherman.

The downside to the book, however, is its organization. O’Connell in the introduction makes the point of needing to separate the various aspects of Sherman’s complex character or personality and behaviors, which at times he feels could become seemingly incongruous or too scattered to follow as one coherent chronological line. This results in the book being divided into three sections: 1) a military perspective (campaigns and his relations with the military hierarchy), 2) another military perspective (his relations with the troops under him), and 3) his personal life. O’Connell’s previous work, which has focused on military and weapons makes the focus of this wartime hero understandable. But, a large amount of the introduction points out the important contributions that Sherman made after the war, which have often gone ignored, particularly in realizing or enabling the “Manifest Destiny” of the previous political years prior to the war’s outbreak.

Sadly, very little text is spent on this period. The bulk of the book is taken up just with the first part. The second part is really a continuation or a rehash of things already covered, but provides a slightly more detailed perspective of Sherman as viewed by his troops. In this way the two chapters of that second part feel more like a biography of the soldiers rather than Sherman. Additionally, much of the private life of Sherman in the final part (again only a couple of chapters) still gets discussed (just more fleetingly or generally) in the earlier sections. The entire end of the book thereby feels like a slightly more specific discussion of things already mentioned, leaving them feel tacked on and superfluous, too separated from the whole.

Despite my issue with the breakup of the organization, this volume would be a fine addition to the library or reading list of those interested in the Civil War and the people involved. O’Connell summarizes other historical accounts of Sherman’s life well within the entirety of his text, often analyzing conflicting views or offering up his own unique take on interpretation of events or beliefs that the historian can only speculate upon with the evidence we have. In all O’Connell seems well-reasoned and informed and he offers copious notes to original sources for those who wish to delve deeper.

Four Stars out of Five

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Todd S. Purdum

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
by Todd Purdum
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 0805096728
416 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“An Idea Whose Time Has Come” relates the convoluted steps leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, starting with the championship and oversight of the bill’s design by the executive branch (namely the Kennedy brothers) and its subsequent evolution through passage in the House and Senate. This political development, rather ‘dry’ in itself, is of course set amid the turbulent social upheavals of the era and that event that both helped propel this ‘project’ forward and led to new difficulties in its realization, namely the Kennedy assassination and the new leadership of Southerner Johnson.

Purdum does a fine job relating the details of the Act’s development and ultimate passage, and after reading about the many failed party compromises of recent years it is interesting to read about one instance where something substantial was achieved. Unlike recent issues, however, this Act had split support and opposition from wings of both Republican and Democratic parties, and thankfully the extreme wings of each party that fought against this Act were each in the minority, unlike today.

The majority of focus in the book is on the executive branch, pervading each step leading to the final passage, and as such the people involved in the legislative branch on either side get relatively less attention. Already less familiar with these people, greater biographical detail on these players and their pasts would have been nice.

While the book does an excellent and fair job of relating the history involved, it spends very little space on any type of analysis. Largely this seems to avoid any kind of bias or opinion, as opposed to just stating the facts or reporting the recorded opinions of those involved in the process at the time. This is not a fault, but if you are looking for something beyond a simple history of passage this may not be of interest. But if you are largely unfamiliar with the details of this period of history, Purdum’s work serves as an excellent primer and education, offering glimpses not just into politics, but the social situation of the United States in the early 60’s and the racial injustices so many citizens endured and fought to overcome.

Four Stars out of Five

John Snow, by Jack Challoner

John Snow, by Jack Challoner
Publisher: A&C Black (Bloomsbury)
ISBN: 1408178400
112 pages, paperback
Published March 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This short biography covers the work of doctor John Snow in investigating outbreaks of cholera in England, a key event in the development of the science of epidemiology, tracing an illness back to its source and ultimate cause. Although Snow was no microbiologist, and it fell to Koch to eventually clearly identify the bacteria Vibrio cholera as the causative agent of the disease, Snow’s work laid the foundations for establishing a way to control cholera, namely to focus on water supplies rather than the prevailing view of the time, ‘bad air’.

Challoner, an established writer of communicating science to a lay audience, particularly youth, writes this geared for older children and young adults, but for those unfamiliar with Snow’s work and epidemiology, it would be quick, highly readable primer on the topic. Challoner focuses on the cholera-related work of Snow, rather than writing an all-encompassing birth-to-death biography, though he does discuss tangentially Snow’s role as physician and pioneering anesthesiologist.

Despite focusing on this history of science and medicine, Challoner relates the story with descriptive warmth, including small details of everyday life at the time (mid-late 1800s) and conversationally, anecdotally through the thoughts of Snow and those he comes in contact with in his endeavors. Though fabricated in that retelling, the facts behind the story, the history, remain solidly accurate to my eye.

Beyond introducing Snow’s accomplishments, this book in general outlines the scientific process of mystery, curiosity, research, refinement, and ultimate success, but with more work for others to carry on. In this sense it is a good general introduction of children to science in general.

The only drawback to the book relates to who the audience may actually be. With text alone, it tends towards the dry and detail-laden, including some medical/scientific vocabulary, despite being related in a straight-forward way, more relatable perhaps to an adult. Yet, it is written in a short and succinct manner with phrases interspersed in the detail that seem geared towards the young. It thus seems most appropriate for a teen with a keen interest in science or medicine, or as a fine source for some school project or paper.

Four Stars out of Five

The Price of Politics, by Bob Woodward

The Price of Politics, by Bob Woodward
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1451651112
480 pages, paperback
Published September 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I made it through this book faster than I ever expected given its topic and my own aversion to things involving economics. Detailing the attempted, and mostly failed attempts of the White House to direct negotiations over US economic policy regarding the debt limit and related matters, the book actually proceeds rapidly and easily, though also rather depressingly.

Woodward tells the story with fine detail and coverage, including multiple points of view and accounts of events when they occur. While he occasionally passes a judgment, and gives his overall point of view conclusions at the close (within a new afterward for this addition), he relates the story in a relatively unbiased fashion.

The book certainly informed me on the events leading to the sequester, the government shutdown, and the budget battles that still continue today, and it paints a picture where many tried to get something done, but all failed, largely due to inflexibility, overconfidence, and lack of trust. These sorts of ‘recent history’ books are important, because they give one a more complete look at a complex process, unlike the uninformative and intentionally spun outlets of media soundbites. In general, the events here are horrifying and frightening for many reasons, and show how ineffective the Obama administration has been at leading in this realm, and how dangerously ignorant and stubborn many of the Tea party-elected are. What is interesting is that while the Tea Party affiliated remain in the background of this history, never taking an active role in negotiations or attempts to actually govern, they exist in the background as the ultimate menace, and unspoken source of the Republican leadership’s repeated abandonment of talks at the slightest excuse and a rigid inflexibility on a host of issues.

The limits of this book are perhaps obvious. It is focus on the events of a political process. There is very little information on the actual political issues, or the origin of party positions. These topics are touched on, but not analyzed or reviewed in any great detail as much as the specifics of events involved in trying to come up with legislation. It also avoids the question of how this process can be improved, or if the system in general is now failed and needs a complete overhaul. All of these are beyond the scope of the book though. Finally, the book reads as somewhat incomplete for it is just that. This history, the process of trying to deal with these issues politically, is still in motion as I write this. So by the end of the book, the story still isn’t quite over, an inherent problem with this sort of work.

Three Stars out of Five

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, by Sean B. Carroll

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Revolution to the Nobel Prize, by Sean B. Carroll
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN: 0307952339
592 pages, hardcover
Published September 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Having focused on biology and French in college, I was obviously intrigued when I saw the description of this book. Amazingly I hadn’t realize the wealth of connections between these subjects that intersected in the decades from World War II to the Cold War. The achievement of Carroll’s book is that he is able to merge disparate forms into one cohesive, enthralling, and compulsively readable volume. A combination of biography, military history, literary/philosophical history, and science, Carroll somehow makes it all work, focusing on the lives of Camus, Monod, Jacob, and others. Mostly these stories are physically separated, coming together in time and space only briefly. Yet each individual’s separate story is linked together by shared global experiences of political and social strife and coming each, individually to a personal philosophy and pursuit of some passion for their own personal betterment and the benefit of their fellow humans. Camus’ story in terms of his journalism, literature, and Existential philosophy is the most widely familiar, but strikingly similar to the genius and passion displayed by Monod, Jacob, and others through their pursuit of science. For anyone interested in literature, science, or the history of World War II, this is a book I would seek to devour. What sets it apart from a mere history of compelling characters is the inspiration it engenders to fight against situations of injustice and concern that you may see in the world, giving an applicability that transcends any particular historic period or society, one that you can easily see reflected in many issues of politics, science and culture today.

Five Stars out of Five

Real Teachers: True Stories of Renegade Educators, by Stuart Grauer

Real Teachers: True Stories of Renegade Educatiors,
by Stuart Grauer
Publisher: SelectBooks
ISBN: 1590799704
240 pages, paperback
Published February 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

It’s been a little over a week since I finished this book, and am now finally getting to post a review amid the busy flow of teaching this semester. Upon finishing it, and since, I vacillated between what ‘star’ rating I should give this collection of essays. In terms of expectations it was a bit of a disappointment to me, but in terms of judging it solely on what its own being it warrants higher consideration; so I went for the latter.

I expected this to be a collection of essays about “Real Teachers”, stories of different in-class experiences, perhaps even from multiple points of view. In a very broad interpretation it could be considered to be so. But really it is more of a series of reflections, a memoir of sorts, of Grauer’s personal experiences and view. Because Grauer breathes education and allows the subject to intersect all aspects of his existence and interactions, the ‘educational lessons’ and ‘teachers’ he accounts in each essay come from all aspects of experience and position, whether a professor, a Native American high school teacher, a child relative, or the impoverished citizens of rural Mexico. Each chapter memoir focuses on key themes or ideas related to education, both theoretical and practical. They are each personal reflections by Grauer on what he learned from each experience regarding how education can, and perhaps should, proceed.

Within this framework, Grauer accomplishes, above all, inspiration and food for further thought. Nicely, he includes victories, failures, and those educational experiences that fall somewhere in between. Similarly, some chapters are long and assertive in their conclusions, while others are brief and more meditative. While the reader might not agree with all of Grauer’s conclusions and statements, I don’t see that as the point of this book. It is not written to convince: as a memoir, not an ‘academic’ work, it lacks extensive citations to backup all assertions. Instead the point seems to be for Grauer to get the educator thinking more deeply and more holistically about the art of their vocation. And perhaps to recapture some of that passion and joy.

The holistic aspects of education permeate the entire book, echoing the commitment of Grauer to his calling and underscoring the intense personal and deep connections involved in the education process between educator and student and the surrounding physical world and human culture. Being written by Grauer and prominently featuring his own private school, I feared the book would come across as self-serving and boastful. For the most part I didn’t find this to be the case. Most consistently, I found Grauer to be frankly honest and focused on a goal of increased personal learning. While Grauer comes across as particularly ‘liberal’ in the classic sense, the book is not remotely political, and Grauer likewise holds positions and ideas that are profoundly ‘conservative’ as well, all depending on what he has concluded engenders the greatest opportunity for real teaching.

At the end, I don’t actually know if there is a strict definition of what a “real teacher” is to Grauer, much as it is hard for a biologist like myself to come up with a simple one sentence definition of “life”. It would be interesting to read a book by Grauer that focuses more on solutions and firm facts regarding education, rather than relatively vague reflective meditations. But perhaps Grauer’s point is that there are no standardized solutions or universal firm facts of the teaching process, but a complex, adaptive relationship between people who require openness to getting things wrong and learning from one another through missteps.

Four Stars out of Five