Good memoir, dull memoir, and translations
A History of the Island by Eugene Vodolazkin. 4/5
In preparation for this novel, I read the author’s previous epic work, Laurus. As some reviewers have already mentioned, this is a continuation of that novel, and the author’s storytelling style and incredible imagination carry through every word. That said, while there are moments of astonishing thought and ideas, I’m not sure the book works well, either as a sequel or a stand-alone. With Laurus, the reader gets a lot of crucial information as the book develops–about Russian religious history, Orthodox Christian thought, medieval Russian life, the history of medicine, and more. In A History of the Island, those deep roots are scant, and the book suffers for it. The many narrators and their very different personalities helps propel the story/stories, and if the reader is patient and knowledgable about Russian intellectual history, religion, and other issues, there is a kind of reward to making it to the end–just as the theology says.
Thinning Blood by Leah Myers. 5/5
Thinning Blood is a heartbreaking and fierce memoir about Indigenous identity in the United States, place and personhood, and grappling with generations of trauma caused by the American government and its agents. Myers is forthright, describing her family’s and her own losses and trials with bravery and honesty and elan that makes me want to hear her read or speak in public. Working through her own personal and professional development as she goes, she constructs a way of thinking about the women of her line through spirits and totems, explaining how the matriarch of each generation handled her identity as Native American and what she taught her children about it–shame, pride, the need to obfuscate. Myers also addresses the role of popular culture in the understanding of Native Americans, citing her own childhood love of the very problematic Disney movie Pocahontas. This is an outstanding book, and I know book groups and high school and college classes will find it challenging and enduring.
Directions to Myself by Heidi Julavits. 1/5
While the writing in this book can be interesting and beautiful, the whole memoir is so self-indulgent and so risk-averse that it made no difference. Julavits equivocates about important issues like rape and engages in magical thinking to justify her actions or lack thereof. Ultimately, what was the point of the book? It felt like a betrayal of other women, of professors, of adults as a whole.
The Translations of Seamus Heaney by Seamus Heaney. 5/5
A fantastic resource for readers, translators, poets, playwrights, and instructors, this enormous and rich volume is a treat in addition to being useful. I loved dipping in and out and found myself reading through giant swathes whole cloth simply because of the language and the commentaries that surround it. It’s true that Heaney’s approaches don’t speak for everyone–no translations do–but they are fascinating.
Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty. 5/5
This is a very thoughtful and nuanced account of forensic anthropology and, in particular, the work of anthropologists in documenting genocides in South America. Hagerty discusses the origins of forensic archaeology in Latin America, her own training, the complex social aspects of the work, and the political ramifications of it. For readers in the US, many of whom are unfamiliar with these genocides, this book provides a crucial history of them and what has ensued since, in the very brittle peaces in place in some areas. It also deromanticizes the work, which has been rather poorly represented in American TV and movies. This will be a good read for book groups and clubs, on campuses, and, to be honest, in ministries, as the book does not flinch from the evil done by the Catholic Church in these massacres.