Sunflowers

This summer, I’m making a conscious effort to use Facebook’s Visual Bookshelf, an application which displays on your Facebook wall the books you’re currently reading and which also allows you to share with your friends short reviews of books you’ve finished, to track the books I read.

Dusted with pollen

Typically, I’m terribly sporadic when it comes to reviewing books I’ve read. Although I like writing book reviews as a way to remember what I thought about what I read, book-reviewing is the kind of thing that often gets bumped to the bottom of my to-do list. The fact that I wrote only two reviews during last year’s Audiobook Challenge (even though I did indeed listen to twelve audiobooks in twelve months, as I’d promised) stands as a testament to how infrequently I get around to reviewing the books I read.

So far this summer, however, I’ve posted short reviews of a handful of books I’ve recently read, so for those of you who haven’t friended me on Facebook, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Blooming from bottom to top

A Whale Hunt: How a Native-American Village Did What No One Thought It Could , by Robert Sullivan
(5 out of 5 stars).

Robert Sullivan’s account of the Makah tribe’s successful attempt to hunt a gray whale is much like the movie Whale Rider, but with the addition of harpoons, blood, and whale-guts. In Whale Rider, young Pai’s attempt to become the leader of her New Zealand tribe culminates in an inspiring closing scene where the girl floats off in a traditional canoe with the now-energized and motivated members of her tribe. With a strong leader to guide them, the film suggests, the members of Pai’s community find purpose, cultural identity, and pride.

The canoeists in Whale Rider, however, didn’t kill any whales, and that’s where the narrative tension arises in Sullivan’s A Whale Hunt. The Makah Indians of Washington State don’t just make a traditional whale boat; they gain permission to hunt the once-endangered gray whale, citing their long tradition of whaling and the rights granted them by long-standing treaties. Sullivan spends two years following the Makah in their epic attempt to hunt, kill, and butcher a gray whale. Not only do the Makah have to re-invent a tradition that’s fallen into disuse, the members of the whaling crew face an assortment of challenges: protesters decry them as “whale murderers,” a hungry media hounds their every step, and government bureaucracy demands they follow official policies and protocols. Ultimately, whaling captain Wayne Johnson shows what kind of leadership, determination, and sacrifice it takes to convert a ragtag band of Indians into mythic warriors. Unlike Whale Rider, it takes far more than a picture-perfect canoe trip.

Hosta buds & leaves

The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America, by Grant Wahl
(4 out of 5 stars).

It’s too soon, perhaps, to determine whether David Beckham’s single-handed attempt to win Americans over to soccer has completely failed, but the most telling word in Grant Wahl’s book is in its subtitle: “tried.” Beckham tried to use his superstar celebrity to sell Major League Soccer in America, and to date, his attempt has been far from successful. MLS has its share of long-time, devoted fans, but they follow American soccer regardless of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s most recognizable member. Wahl’s book chronicles the PR circus that surrounded Beckham’s arrival in LA, and by book’s end, it’s painfully apparent that Beckham’s handlers woefully mismanaged his early seasons with the Galaxy.

This past year, Beckham has been sidelined with injuries, and the Galaxy has played better without him than with him. Yes, David Beckham generated a lot of attention for Major League Soccer, and his celebrity sold a lot of jerseys. But ultimately soccer is about the play on the field, not the celebrity circus on the sidelines, and it’s not clear whether droves of David Beckham fans will continue to support Major League Soccer in America after he’s left the league.

Rose of Sharon with ant

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer
(5 out of 5 stars).

Jon Krakauer’s book-length profile of Pat Tillman, the football star who grabbed headlines after he left the NFL to enlist in the Army after 9/11, is a blockbuster. Krakauer is unflinching in his account of how Tillman’s Army enlistment and eventual death in Afghanistan was used for propagandistic purposes by the Bush administration, which was eager to “sell” the patriotism of America’s involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Tillman’s true story (like that of Jessica Lynch before him) doesn’t match the version that was widely publicized. Before his death, Tillman came to disagree with the war in Afghanistan, although he kept the promise of his three-year enlistment even when offered the chance to leave the Army early in order to return to the NFL. Worse yet, Tillman’s death was the result of friendly fire, a fact the government tried to keep from Tillman’s own family in order to spin a more romanticized version of his service and sacrifice.

Reading Krakauer’s re-telling of both Jessica Lynch’s captivity and Pat Tillman’s death, you realize how many vital details were lost in media accounts of these high profile stories. The truth of Tillman’s death doesn’t make America’s involvement in Afghanistan any more heroic; instead, the truth behind Tillman’s death points to how remarkable he was and how botched the American mission in Afghanistan often was.

Pokeweed

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell
(5 out of 5 stars).

Whereas Malcolm Gladwell’s previous books feature essays centering around a single unifying theme, What the Dog Saw reflects his breadth and versatility as a writer. Gladwell is one of those writers who seems to be an expert on everything, which is a testament to how diligently he researches even his occasional pieces. What sets Gladwell apart from just another investigative reporter, however, is the novelty of his insights.

Any journalist could research the history of Enron, the life of Cesar Millan, or the hiring practices of public schools, for instance, but only Malcolm Gladwell is creative enough to compare Enron’s business practices to government surveillance of potential terrorists, to view Millan’s muted interactions with dogs and their owners with a dancer, or to compare the hiring of teachers to the recruiting of NFL quarterbacks. Malcolm Gladwell, in other words, writes the best kind of creative nonfiction. You won’t just learn from his informative essays; you’ll also look at a wide variety of topics in a whole new way.

Rose of Sharon with raindrops

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
(5 out of 5 stars).

A combination of biography, science writing, and mystery, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a woman whose cervical cancer cells–collected without her knowledge or permission–have survived in culture for decades and which have contributed to many medical breakthroughs. Author Rebecca Skloot resurrects the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cancer in the 1950s, but not before doctors harvested a cell specimen that would be immortalized as “HeLa,” a culture used in polio, cancer, and other medical research.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells Henrietta Lacks’ personal life story, expresses the anger of Lacks’ family when they learn of the experiments performed on Henrietta’s still-living cancer cells, and explores the legal and ethical questions inherent in cell research: if patients don’t “own” their own cells, who stands to profit from them? The story of Henrietta Lacks brings these abstract questions into focus, and Skloot’s telling of Lacks’ story is both fascinating and moving.

Spiky

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity: A Memoir, by Kate Braestrup
(4 out of 5 stars).

Although not as good as Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup’s memoir about her work as Maine forestry chaplain, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity offers a thought-provoking look into the institution of marriage, both from Braestrup’s firsthand experience as a re-married widow and her work marrying and counseling couples. The book is strongest when Braestrup focuses on the couples she counsels; when discussing her own marriages, Braestrup isn’t as objective, exaggerating (it seems) her flaws in her first marriage and idealizing her second husband.

If you read Here If You Need Me, which discusses Braestrup’s decision to become a chaplain after the death of her Maine state trooper husband, Drew, you’ll probably be surprised to learn the details of that first marriage, with its fights, broken furniture, and near-divorce. In Here If You Need Me, Drew is an almost angelic presences; in Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, Braestrup paints herself as a bitchy feminist who behaved badly in her first marriage.

Perhaps it’s human nature to idealize one’s dead spouse, and perhaps it’s human nature to insist that one’s current marriage is infinitely better than one’s first. Or perhaps Braestrup feels hesitant to write honestly about the cracks in her current marriage, given the fact that her present husband, Simon, is alive. Looking beyond the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Braestrup’s own marital history, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity offers an interesting glimpse into an institution that is often romanticized but seldom deeply understood.

Thistle

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert
(3 out of 5 stars)

Elizabeth Gilbert is at her best when she is writing about other people, not when she is obsessing about herself; her book-length profile of modern day mountain man Eustace Conway in The Last American Man, for instance, is insightful, engaging, and often wickedly funny. In saying that Gilbert writes best when she doesn’t focus primarily upon herself, I’m going against the millions of readers who loved Eat, Pray, Love, which I found self-indulgent and self-absorbed. (See Maria’s blog for an excellent review of Eat, Pray, Love that shares many of my reservations.)

Committed is Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love, with the added wrinkle that American immigration laws require her to marry “Felipe,” the man she met (and vowed never to marry) at the end of Eat, Pray, Love. The result is a book-length anxiety attack in which Gilbert tries to convince herself (and her millions of devoted fans) that marriage isn’t as terrible as she previously thought it was. If you’re marriage-phobic (or if you simply want the happily-ever-after ending to the Elizabeth/Felipe saga), Gilbert’s book might ring true for you. But if you’re looking for an intelligent analysis of the institution of marriage, there are better (i.e. less self-absorbed) books to read.

So, what are you reading? Right now I’m multi-tasking Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, and Karen Maezen Miller’s Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. Here’s hoping I’ll actually get around to reviewing each of these when I’ve finished them.

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