Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

One of the other books I picked up at the public library a few weeks ago was Alexis M. Smith’s 2016 novel Marrow Island. It’d been on my radar for months, ever since Karen and Amanda, the former hosts of the Portland Silent Reading Party mentioned it on both their blog and Facebook page. Figuring any book Karen and Amanda promotes has got to be good I decided to grab a copy of Marrow Island. I’m happy I did.

What I didn’t know until I started reading Marrow Island it’s by an author who lives in town. I’ve always been a bit skeptical when it comes to local writers because I suspect some of them are praised not necessary for their talents but because they’re local. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with Smith since Marrow Island is an award-winning novel, receiving accolades from the likes of Ellie and Book Riot.

Marrow Island is not some simple tale set in the Pacific Northwest but a multidimensional novel that succeeds in combining a number of diverse elements. Not only is it an ecological thriller with LGBT romantic overtones, (without revealing too much, it won a Lambda Award for best bisexual fiction) there’s also an alternate history aspect of the novel, since it’s set in the Pacific Northwest 20 years after a major earthquake devastated the greater Puget Sound. There’s also political and social commentary thrown in, as Smith describes how Seattle and the surrounding area rebuilt it gentrified, thus driving out not just the poor, working class and people of color but also the non affluent middle class. Lastly, in Marrow Island human driven climate change is a hard and fast reality as Smith mentions almost in passing the droughts, shortened rainy seasons and intense summer heat that plague the region.

The story bounces back between the present and two years earlier when the protagonist Lucie Bowen, an out of work investigative journalist returns to her old stomping grounds of Marrow Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Thought to have been abandoned after the quake, Lucie’s heard rumors the island is now home to vibrant community known as the Colony. Led by an environmentally conscious nun, members of this Catholic Worker-esque commune live off the grid, preferring to subsist on locally grown food while using indigenous flora for medicinal purposes. During her visit Lucie learns of the Colony’s practice of employing mushrooms to cleanse the island’s soil, severely polluted after the local oil refinery exploded and caught fire during the quake, and made worse by fire retardants used in fighting the fire. Before long however she learns the colony’s ecological mission comes with a steep price: cancer is ravaging the Colony and babies are being still-born.

Rest assured, whatever I fears I might have had about the praiseworthiness of local authors Marrow Island succeeds on its own merits. Without a doubt it’s an enjoyable novel.

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Five Bookish Links

I honestly didn’t think I’d be doing a Five Bookish Links post this week since I thought I was a little short on subject matter. However, after going through my news feed and Safari reading list I quickly realized I had more than enough material for a post. So, with that in mind happy reading.

  1. Not long after I posted my review of Mary Beard’s SPQR Five Books interviewed Tom Holland, author of Rubicon. Here’s his five favorite books on Ancient Rome.
  2. It took me two decades to finally get around to reading Garcia Marquez’s modern classic Love in the Time of Cholera. Maria Popova’s article on Brain Pickings looks at 24 books that strongly influenced the Colombian writer and Nobel laureate.
  3. I read on Citizen Reader that Caitlin Doughty, every book blogger’s favorite mortician, as well as author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes has a new book. She recently sat down with NPR and talked about death rituals from around the world.
  4. Over the years I’ve featured a number of books by atheists, skeptics and agnostics. While many conservatives like to blame the so-called godless instructors of the ivory tower for polluting young impressionable minds Daniel Cox, writing for FiveThirtyEight “College Professors aren’t Killing Religion” claims that’s not necessarily the case. But after one takes a close look at the sociological data, a good college education is certainly a contributing factor as to why the ranks of the religiously affiliated continues to shrink.
  5.  I don’t believe in past lives, but if I did, I must have been a spy or some sort of intelligence operative. Maybe that’s why I’m always reading stuff about Iran, Afghanistan some other strife-filled part of the world.  In a recent post appearing on the site Small Wars Journal, James King asked members of INTELST forum, a group of almost 4000 current and former Military Intelligence professionals what they thought are the best books for intelligence analysts.

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Wordless Wednesday

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October 18, 2017 · 2:54 pm

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Over the last couple of years I’d read a ton of positive things about Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. When one of the members of my book club sang SPQR’s praises I decided to read it, thinking it would end up being our club’s next selection. Luckily for me, I had no trouble borrowing a copy from my public library. Luckier still, the following month my book club voted to read it.

A month later when we met to discuss SPQR, overall I think the club was pleased with our choice, even if one member was critical of the book because, in his opinion, Beard took too general of an approach when presenting Rome’s history. I on the other hand enjoyed her book and there’s a good chance it’ll make my end of the year Best Nonfiction List.

Writing a readable, learned and relatively concise book covering 500 years of Roman history is a thankless job. Kudos to Beard for pulling it. SPQR is sweeping in scope, beginning with Rome’s origins as sleepy village in central Italy and ends with that sleepy village an empire straddling three continents. But there’s also plenty of detail as you see Rome go through the many phases of its development. At the same time, Beard takes a revisionist approach to telling Rome’s history, by looking as best as anyone can based on the available evidence on the lives of what we today might call the 99 percent: slaves, working poor, non-aristocratic women and the like. She also advises us when it comes to Roman history to be critical and not blindly trust what we’ve traditionally believed about Ancient Rome.

With many pundits weighing in of late on the current state of American Exceptionalism in the age of President Trump, perhaps its no surprise my strongest take away from SPQR is the notion of what I might call Roman Exceptionalism. I see this idea as two-fold. One, starting with its foundation myths, ancient Romans believed the city was founded by Romulus and Remus, two orphans from the nearby town of Alba Longa or by prince Aeneas after he fled the fall of Troy. Either way according to the state-sponsored mythology Rome was founded by outsiders. Secondly, as Rome expanded through territorial conquest and acquired additional population, the vanquished peoples to varying degrees were granted citizenship, regardless of race, location, or religion. Speaking of religion, as Rome expanded outward the gods worshipped by those the Empire conquered were gradually added to the Roman religious pantheon. Later however, Christianity upset this balance. Whereas most pagan religions were area-specific, Christianity was a universal faith with adherents across the empire. But it was its monotheistic nature that gave Romans fits. With Christians worshiping what they believed as the one, and only true god to them all other gods were figments or worse demonic impersonators.Therefore, by not making offerings to the gods of the state Christians were abandoning their civic duty of seeking the gods’ blessings of Rome. Troublesome as well, Christians refused to view deceased or ruling Roman emperors as gods or demigods.

SPQR is a terrific book and a must read for history fans. It’s inspired me to read more books on Ancient Rome, including James Romm’s Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero. It’s also inspired me to read the classics of Roman literature. I now want to read some Ovid, if nothing else just to read his advice on how to meet women. While I’m sure I could learn much from greats like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, after reading SPQR I’m itching to read Polybius. Not only was the man an impressive historian, but judging from one of his sayings he was the Dale Carnegie of his day. According to Beard, he once advised a Roman “don’t come back from the Forum without making at least one new friend.”

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Absalom’s Daughters by Suzanne Feldman

A few weeks ago I grabbed a half-dozen or so library books and one of them was Suzanne Feldman’s 2016 novel Absalom’s Daughters. Much like Stolen BeautyThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Sleeping World I discovered it at my public library while poking around the shelves of newly published and librarians’ choice books. Not only did the book’s attractive cover art grab my eye, I couldn’t resist the novel’s plot: a pair of half-sisters, one white and the other black taking a long road trip across the American South in the mid-50s. I must have grabbed the right book because once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.

The novel begins in a backwoods town in Mississippi when two girls on the cusp of womanhood learn of their estranged mutual father’s inheritance. Cassie, black (specifically biracial) and Judith, white set out for Virginia in a sputtering jalopy to claim their respective part of the family fortune. Not only must the two girls make their interstate journey with little more than a few dollars, an iron skillet and a Civil War era pistol but also carefully navigate the restrictive laws and social mores of the American South.

Billed as a novel that’s part coming of age tale and part buddy film while lightly seasoned with magical realism, Feldman’s debut novel is a fresh, witty and jaunty trek across America’s mid-century Jim Crow South. Feldman’s crisp writing, much of it vernacular, vividly portrays the region’s poverty, fatalism and unbridgeable racial divide. But at the same time, it’s also a novel about two impoverished young women of different races who nevertheless share the same father. As they travel across the South the girls’ respect and fondness for each other grows and those barriers, at least on a personal level become less insurmountable.

I was pleasantly surprised by Absalom’s Daughters and therefore I’m indebted to my public library for bringing it to my attention. Right now I’m unsure if it’ll make my year-end Best Fiction List (considering the great fiction I’ve read up to now, 2017 should be a strong year) but I assure you, if any of you end up reading Absalom’s Daughter’s I’m confident you wont be disappointed.

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Wordless Wednesday

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October 11, 2017 · 8:24 pm

Five Bookish Links

I was feeling inspired this afternoon so I decided to post more bookish links. Inspired as I was it still took a lot of thinking, as well as a little hemming and hawing before I could produce the final product. Happy reading!

  1. Conservative British pundit and journalist Douglas Murray created quite a stir with his new book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam in which he argues Europe, especially Western Europe is in danger of losing its treasured cultural identity due to declining birth rates and immigration, primarily from the Islamic world. Seen as reactionary and racist by some, prescient and insightful by others, Murray has been a sought after interview guest of late, appearing on NPR and well as Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve placed a library hold on his book. If that’s the case, there’s a ton of stuff you can read while you’re waiting. Start with Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West Within and from there proceed to Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God , Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Claire Berlinkski’s Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crises is America’s, Too Lastly, be sure to read Doug Saunders’ The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? because he also looks at the challenges facing Europe and comes to very different conclusions than Murray.
  2. Speaking of immigrants and refugees, last week the New York Public Library posted on Twitter 16 Books About Refugees for Kids and Adults. Sadly for me, of the 16 books mentioned the only one I’ve read is Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. But if you’re looking for other books about immigrants and refugees, feel free to explore Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America Fabio Geda’s In the Sea There are CrocodilesAndré Aciman’s Harvard Square and David Laskin’s The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War.
  3. Last year for Book Blogger Appreciation Week in my post Five Books that Represent Me I listed five books I felt represented me in some way or another. One of those books, Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X inspired me with its passages of Malcolm X spending many an evening in his prison cell devouring books on history, colonialism and philosophy. If you wanna see what he read, check out the post on the blog Abagond.
  4. Another book I featured in the Five Books that Represent Me post was Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time .Not long ago Shermer was interviewed by The Reading Lists. His interview, “A Scientific Masterclass of Books” has some great reading suggestions. I also recommend his Baloney Detection Kit video available on YouTube .
  5. Elena Ferrante’s novels have taken the world by storm. Nevertheless she remains a mysterious figure, refusing to grant interviews, employing a pseudonym and living life well under the radar. Because of her extreme secrecy, attention has shifted to her American translator Ann Goldstein. Besides Ferrante’s translator, Goldstein’s also an editor at the New Yorker. She’s also the skilled translator of Algerian-Italian novelist Amara Lakhous. I’ve featured two of his novels on my blog, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio and Divorce Islamic Style. Both are great.

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