Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Who Ate the First Oyster? By Cody Cassidy

How did humans get the way we are? Pants-wearing, horseback-riding, disease-fighting jokesters, some of whom eat oysters? Cody Cassidy has a few answers, in a book that’s far more well-researched and thoughtful than its quirky cover suggests. Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History is inventive and clever, which makes it appeal to a mass audience and to those of us who yearn for a little light, but not dumb, reading. It is supported by substantial research in evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology, and makes innovative connections that stitch together three million years of human development. Cassidy starts at our pre-human stage, but places the most emphases on the past 300,000 years, since the arrival of the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

When did we begin wearing pants? As far as scientists can tell, that happened 164,000 years ago—a date that is measurable because it matches the arrival of the body louse, which evolved from the head louse. Why? What? Huh?  Apparently the louse jumped from the head of one of our ancestors and onto his clothing, which means he had clothing. Probably not pants, more likely some sort of adornment, but duds nevertheless. Cassidy calls this person Ralph, after Mr. Lauren.


We can trace horseback riding to 5,600 years ago, when anthropologists date the first known bridle, which allowed a rider to control a horse. Before that, horses were used as meat and milk (kudos to people who have the guts to milk a horse) but were too wild to consider riding. No doubt many broken bodies preceded the first successful ride, which, Cassidy notes, changed history and became the dominant from of transportation until the 20th century. It also changed economics, because those without horses could not compete for resources with those who had the beasts and could control them. Cassidy names the first rider Napoleon “in honor of Napoleon Cybulski, the Polish physiologist who first isolated adrenaline, a molecule that played no small role in this moment of inspiration.”


The first oyster? That came because Oyster Gal—not one of Cassidy’s best choices of names—figured out how the moon affects the tides, so she could know when it was safe to go to the sea for her oysterfest. Why eat them in the first place? Because she saw other animals doing it, and surviving. Also, she was probably hungry and darn tired of eating roots. 


In a sobering and eye-opening section, Cassidy explains how the tools of warfare typically evolved from toys, and how the bow and arrow was the first weapon not to mimic nature. It was invented by a man he calls Archie, for obvious reasons.


Cassidy personalizes his characters throughout, explaining that most early Homo sapiens could have handled a contemporary discussion or task just fine, given preparation, although they might have been shorter, with larger brows.  His names, while often witty, show an understanding of history and culture. The woman who invented fire is called Martine after a French geologist who was “jailed for witchcraft, which you can imagine is an accusation our Martine, after striking the first fire, would almost certainly have risked as well.” The first person whose name we know is Kushim, a bookkeeper who lived along the Euphrates River and signed his name on his tallies.  


Noting that Columbus was the last person to discover the Americas, he introduces us to the first, whom he calls Dersu, after the Siberian explorer Dersu Uzala. Why? You’ll have to read the book. I’ve probably told you too much already.


This is an easy read, but it offers much to think about. Chapters are digestible and short, and you can read one at a sitting, never worrying about losing the storyline. The book comes with maps and a timeline that help illustrate what is essentially a highly accessible history of the development of human civilization. Sometimes Cassidy’s conclusions feel like a stretch, but they make you think of what might have been and how it might have happened.—Pat Prijatel


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The characters and events in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are indeed unlikely: Harold makes a spontaneous decision to walk the length of England in yachting shoes to keep his old friend Queenie alive. He gradually abandons structure and convention as the journey progresses—finally paying no attention to night or day or weather or food or where he sleeps. He is utterly shocked at the grotesque deathbed disfigurement that has come from Queenie’s waiting for him. None of these things seem quite realistic or likely, yet the overall story comes to feels universally true and important.

At the beginning, we meet Harold and Maureen: “Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbor’s stockade fencing.” Maureen is cleaning, which she does a lot. She likes her toast cold and crisp. And she is dismissive of everything Harold says and does. 

Immediately, Queenie’s letter arrives with the news that she is dying, and before long Harold is off on his unlikely pilgrimage to hand carry his inchoate written response to her news, believing that the long journey will delay her death. 

At first, Harold and Maureen feel pathetic in their dysfunction—like characters only the author could love. But as they open up to the reader (but not to each other), they begin to feel like survivors who may deserve our understanding, instead of victims who need our pity. As the revelations land, we learn of parental abandonment and indifference. Of a brilliant, but troubled, addicted son who hangs himself. 

A universal story begins to unfold of childhood tenderness and trauma, of young adulthood with its peaks and perils. If we’re lucky, true love strikes and makes us dance crazy. But even then, our past nags at our present. Shortcomings show themselves. Mistakes are made, hearts are broken, memories are wrenched into false truths. We blame, we feel guilty. We ache. We mourn. We deny. 

Harold’s pilgrimage on a narrative level is about keeping Queenie in this world as long as possible, but his real pilgrimage is to fall in love with Maureen again, and have her fall in love with him again. And for them to share good, true memories of their son who, like everyone, ultimately made his own choices. 

At the end, when Harold and Maureen are leaving the nuns after Queenie’s funeral, they find themselves laughing about something one of them said at their first meeting. What was said isn’t shared with the reader. It’s just their memory, which enhances the new sense of intimacy between them. “They caught hands again, and walked toward the water’s edge, two small figures against the black waves. Only half way there, one of them must have remembered again and it passed like a fresh current of joy between them. They stood at the water’s edge, not letting go, and rocked with laughter.” — Sharelle Moranville

Friday, March 26, 2021

The Likeness, by Tana French

“Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House.”

The first line of Tana French’s The Likeness tells you much of what you need to know about the novel: The house is key to what happens, as are ideals of home, family, and belonging. But it all revolves around protecting the house while its spell controls and defines the lives of those who live under its graceful roof.


Central to life inside Whitethorn is Daniel, who inherited the house from his bachelor uncle, and the friends he has chosen in graduate school: Abby, Rafe, Justin, and Lexie. He’s carefully curated his friendships to build his own family, with one unbreakable rule: No pasts.


When Lexie gets murdered, her doppelganger, Detective Cassie Maddox, takes her place in the house to try to solve the crime. Adding to the mystery is the fact that, when she worked in undercover, Cassie invented Lexie. She knows that whoever this woman is, she’s not Lexie because Lexie is not real.


What follows is a French-style psychological thriller, with an emphasis on character development, showing how people who are broken damage themselves and one another while searching for belonging. To the five main characters in this compelling narrative that means complete fealty to their homemade family. When that bond breaks, nothing else can hold.


Some of this is difficult to buy. Do the people who spend all day, every day with Lexie not notice that Cassie is a different person, no matter the physical resemblance and preparation? But it’s easy to dispel disbelief and just dig into this deeply-told tale.


A conversation between Daniel and Cassie-as-Lexie shows that Daniel understood the bargain he was making with his friends and his house:


“There's a Spanish proverb," he said, "that's always fascinated me. "Take what you want and pay for it, says God.'"


"I don't believe in God," Daniel said, "but that principle seems, to me, to have a divinity of its own; a kind of blazing purity. What could be simpler, or more crucial? You can have anything you want, as long as you accept that there is a price and that you will have to pay it.” 

The Likeness explores that price. As in other books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, most of the pieces fall together at the end, but French leaves us to make our own sense of much of it. Just like life. — Pat Prijatel


Monday, March 1, 2021

Running Away To Home, by Jennifer Wilson


A dinner of door mouse (it tastes like chicken), nights on an ancient futon in a randomly finished attic, a bathroom door that won’t shut, an annoying barking dog next door, drunken neighbors, and a solid language barrier. Such was the glamour that faced Jennifer Wilson and her family when they took a break from their stressful American life to move for four months to the home of Jen’s great-grandparents, Mrkopalj, Croatia. The family went looking for family and adventure and found both. Comfort? Not so much, at least not in the usual sense of the word.

Wilson recognizes physical characteristics that tie her to the people she meets, especially the deep-set eyes so like her own. She eats the food she remembers her beloved Grandma Kate making, such as povitica, a sweet nut bread. She shares local beer with local drinkers, learns to garden the Mrkopalj way, finds old roots and builds new ones.

In this funny and insightful book, Wilson shows us life in Croatia in 2008, and defines what we mean by family. She meets blood relatives, but bonds with an assortment of delightful, maddening, and perplexing neighbors who welcome her, her husband, and their two young children, providing food, advice, and research help.


Initially, the kids, Sam and Zadie, miss their Iowa home and family, but when it is time to leave Mrkopalj, both mourn the loss of the community that embraced them as part of the tiny village where nothing much happens except at the local bar or the Catholic church. But to kids, that meant freedom to roam, to ride bikes on streets with few cars, to play games non-stop with the neighborhood kids, and to eat popsicles on hot afternoons. 


Wilson takes us on the family’s journey, peeling the onion of Mrkopalj to find the layers of tears below. Depending on their age, residents survived World War I, II, and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Many family members died, those who survived faced a life of trauma, the scars of which show in the men’s drinking, a sadness the falls over conversations, and the bad teeth from a lack of dental work and, possibly, bad water. 


After months of searching for her past, Wilson recognizes her own good fortune in being the descendent of those who left. But she sees the strength and goodness of those who stayed behind. Past and present blur as her definition—and ours—of home and family expands. — Pat Prijatel


Friday, February 12, 2021

In The Woods, by Tana French

Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, is fascinating, complex and ultimately leaves its different readers with many different impressions of how we are to view the main characters and what actually happens in the story.

In literary genre circles, this book is classified as a “police procedural.”  The story takes place in and around Dublin, Ireland, where the weather, the atmosphere, the ethos of the place are almost characters in the plot.  The book is narrated by Murder Squad detective Rob Ryan who, we discover early in the book, has an unsolved mystery at the heart of his life.  His memory of the incident is gone.  And he tells us, “Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery.  I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light….It was these arcana I craved, these near-invisible textures like a Braille legible only to the initiated.  They were like thoroughbreds, those two Murder detectives passing through Ballygobackwards; like trapeze artists honed to a sizzling shine.  They played for the highest stakes, and they were experts at their game.”

Rob and partner Cassie Maddox, the only person other than Rob’s parents who knows about his relationship to this old unsolved mystery, are assigned a murder case involving a 12-year-old girl from the same suburb where Rob grew up and where the old unsolved mystery took place.  Should he be investigating this new case?  His doing so is absolutely against department regulations, but he and Cassie proceed anyway.  Thus we begin a journey into the intertwining of these two stories.

We remember that Rob-the-narrator has also told us in the first line of the first chapter of the book:  “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective.  Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.  It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.”  So, is everything that follows somehow “fundamental but cracked truth”?  Are we part of a web of deception?  Is Ryan himself part of that web?

This first book in French’s “Dublin Murder Series” is a highly satisfying read, open to interpretation and re-interpretation.  Are there clues we have missed?  What is the significance of the object found in the remnant of the woods, now an archeological dig, at the end of the story?  Can we add up the brief flashbacks that Rob experiences during the course of the current investigation?

Read it yourself and see what you think. — Jeanie Smith

Friday, January 15, 2021

Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown

It may be worth noting up front that our group read Braving the Wilderness in January of 2021, with our first of two discussions taking place just after an attack on the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the process of ratifying Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election. This made it a very timely and relevant read for many of us who were struggling to see these acts as anything other than “us versus them.” Having moved even deeper into the divisive and polarized culture that existed four years ago to acts of violence in 2021, BrenĂ© Brown’s words from 2017 now seem rather prophetic.

“The flags are flying from every porch and the social media memes are trending, all while fear is burrowing and metastasizing. What feels like a rallying movement is really a cover for fear, which can then start spreading over the landscape and seeping into the fault lines of our country. As fear hardens, it expands and becomes less of a protective barrier and more of a solidifying division. It forces its way down in the gaps and tears apart our social foundation, already weakened with those delicate cracks.”


In this short but powerful book, through her characteristic mode of vulnerable storytelling from her own emotionally raw experiences, Brown lets the reader know she’s seeking truths to help us all cope – not telling us she has all the answers. She challenges us to take a hard look at our responses in the face of fear and anger and whether, in our quest for belonging, we’re doing more than surrounding ourselves with like-minded others and pointing fingers for blame. While her suggestions for moving out of our own bunkers to find a greater sense of belonging absolutely make sense, they’re also no easy tasks: moving in and listening to people with whom we disagree, speaking truth to B.S. in a civil and non-dehumanizing way, and keeping a strong back, soft front and wild heart. 


A paradoxical quote by Dr. Maya Angelou, which Brown wrestles to understand throughout the book, is this: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” If the key to belonging is feeling bold enough to live authentically in every place, it opens up a lot of questions about how we raise our kids, how we form our identities and relationships, and even how we act as a church. The idea transcends any notion that one way of thinking is “correct.” 


Braving the Wilderness sparked a lot of reflection and conversation in our group of like-minded friends, but I can also see it being used as a starting point for open discussion among people who disagree. At any rate, it’s worth reminding ourselves to stay open to that conversation, and that fear of the other must be confronted in order to heal.  — Julie Feirer

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is a delightful and discussable novel. The story of the Land family—
Jeremiah, Davy, Reuben, and Swede—is set in the early 60s in rural Minnesota and the North Dakota badlands.

The narrator is Reuben as an adult, reflecting back on a childhood marred by severe and unpredictable asthma. Much of the tension of young Reuben’s story is his nervous, sometimes resentful, monitoring of his dad’s miracles—always hoping for the big one: that his dad will cure him. Reuben knows his dad can perform miracles because he has witnessed them—curing an undeserving school superintendent of a skin condition, healing a flaw in Swede’s saddle, rendering the Land’s Airstream rig invisible to the Law. And ultimately, Jeremiah does cure his son’s asthma, by miraculously gifting Rueben with his own lungs—the occasion for this miracle, by the way, compliments of the evil, murderous Jape Waltzer.


While young Reuben wrestles with his asthma, his little sister Swede—sidekick and foil—is pounding out a kind of parallel saga of Sunny Sundown and the wicked Valdez on a manual typewriter, often while riding a saddle on a sawhorse in an Airstream trailer heading West in search of fugitive Davy. Sunny Sundown’s saga is told in charmingly awful heroic verse. And significantly, Swede can’t kill Valdez—though if ever a fictional villain deserved death it is he.


The novel explores very serious and weighty matters: life and death, good and evil, crime and punishment—all the while making us laugh at the most unlikely moments. For example, the gruesome hunting scene near the beginning of the story, rendered hysterical by Swede’s unwise enthusiasm to retrieve the downed goose.


We see the transformative power of love in Roxanna who, when we meet her, is graceless and plain. But when she and Jeremiah marry, she is graceful and beautiful. And as she is transformed by them, so are they transformed by her: Jeremiah to health and the children from motherless to abundantly mothered.


Enger’s characters, which are both types and utterly singular, push the boundaries of realism. But because they are so original and engaging, and because the pacing of the story is quick and the stakes are high, the reader cheerfully goes along for the ride. The oversize characters are easy to love, easy to despise, and easy to equivocate about. Jeremiah is Good. Almost like Christ. Jape Waltzer is Evil. Almost like Satan. And Davy, Reuben’s outlaw brother, is Morally Ambiguous. Almost like us.


Enger’s poses a kind of Yin and Yang dualism. We can’t have life without death, or good without evil, or joy without sadness, or doubt without miracles. Perhaps the reason Swede can’t kill Valdez is because Sunny Sundown can’t live without him. Jape Waltzer needs to murder Jeremiah so Reuben can receive the miracle. And we can’t bear the grimness of it all without being able to laugh. — Sharelle Moranville