review

Special Novella Review: “The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole” by Jason Derr


I recently finished reading the short novella “The Life And Remembrances Of Martha Toole,” a story that explores our relation to our place and what we leave of ourselves behind us there. It follows the semi-dysfunctional (or at least thoroughly modern) Hammer family as they put up with, first, an extended visit from the elderly, hyper-critical Martha Toole, and eventually, a sort of ghost of the Martha Toole of the past, a youthful version that appears from the family land itself. Throughout their interactions, we see the elderly reflections on the past and the youthful thoughts a past generation might have concerning iPads and chain grocery stores. Nostalgia and the changes in a person over a lifetime are tinkered and toyed with throughout.

I love the idea of this story. It was a little eerie to me to read because, while I never had the idea for a story like this (I wish I had though!), it reads more like my own youthful writing style than anything else I’ve ever read. Perhaps that also makes me a bit more critical of the writing than I would normally be as well.

Martha Toole is too heavy on the vague philosophical components and too light on inspiring narrative. It would have been better as a much shorter short story or fleshed out in a different form as a much fuller novel. The characters and history are spelled out by the narrator rather than develop. There is littl dialogue and what there is feels flat.

Again, I’m especially hard on this story because it feels like something I would have written just a few years ago, when the only thing motivating my writing was the philosophical or emotional point I was trying to make with the story. There is little that feels creative in the style, though the subject matter it mostly enjoyable. There is a sequence when the younger Martha Toole goes out with her great-grandniece (or something like that) to visit a boy who torments her because he has a crush on her. When they arrive, Martha realizes she once knew the land where he lives, and personally knew his ancestors. She goes from a childish girl to talking family history with his astonished father. This sequence really shines through and touched me deeply, in a way I had hoped the entire story would. Sadly, most of the rest felt like a first draft.

Either way, I encourage you to give the story a read and let me know your thoughts!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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“American Meat” In Review


Recently, my wife and I watched a little documentary entitled “American Meat.” I call it little because it doesn’t look like much at first, but this lower budget documentary offers more than first meets the eye. I just happened upon it and the cover (complete with Joel Salatin cover) made me interested to view it. I was surprisingly refreshed both by the content and the way they chose to approach it.

Documentaries often carry an air of theatricality. Perhaps that is really what makes this film stand apart, seemingly low budget in a good way. The goal in writing a documentary is usually to either reveal something in a shocking, journalistic manner or to bring a comforting, self-discovery. Any documentary about social woes and systematic problems is generally going to lean heavily on creating intense moods and starkly contrasting victims and monsters. Not so here. The film was an honest look at the farmers. Farmers across the spectrum. Farmers who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to industrial farming, farmers who are still relying on industrial farming but would love a better option they could rely on, farmers who have established alternative and highly functional farming methods (mainly Joel Salatin here), and younger people who are turning to farming and learning and innovating new methods.

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The thing that was so incredibly pleasant about this film was how positive it stayed. The question all along was simply “is this a good way and, if not, is there a feasible alternative method?” There is zero emphasis on the way the system has gotten so bad, or who is responsible for the flaws. There is only emphasis on understanding those who find themselves at the forefront of the problems, and gentle encouragement to believe that proactivity can create a real turn around. This film is utterly without pretense and completely bolsters your belief in humanity and the ability for relationships to breed community and the ability for community to produce national change. If you have watched Food Inc. and similar documentaries and find you have any interest in the food and farming situations current in the United States, I cannot recommend any documentary above this one.

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On a separate and similar note, I would encourage anyone seriously interested in getting hands on experience on a farm or getting back into the farming business to check out the Salatin family’s newest project, EagerFarmer. EagerFarmer could easily be the catalyst for the change American Meat proposes. It is basically a classified ad service for those looking to learn to farm, find gainful farm employment, find farm help, or get farmers on their unused land. I’ve been eagerly browsing and dreaming, and I encourage both in you.

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Further Reading

 

Michael Pollan Didn’t Start This

Tolkien and Lewis On Living Off The Land

Wendell Berry On Paths And Roads

55 Classics Review # 11 – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming


Like Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a book I was most interested in because of my enjoyment of the film adaptation and one I found absolutely and entirely different from the film adaptation. Unlike Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as superb a read as it is a film.

I loved the book and the film. That said, I am honestly at a loss for the bizarre variance of the film adaptation. The book was published the same year that Ian Fleming died. The film was produced only four years later by Albert Broccoli, the same man who contiually brought Fleming’s James Bond to the screen with such success. The prodigious Roald Dahl was one of the screenwriters who adapted wrote the film, which accounts for the spectacular and unique story. The only obvious similarities between these two film adaptations is that Dick Van Dyke stars in each and that those shifty geniuses the Sherman brothers wrote all the music for both films. “Me Ol’ Bamboo” stands firmly as my favorite choreographed number of all time. While there can’t be a correlation through their involvement, one does wonder at the willingness of such a creative duo to sign on with projects that trample on the writing of other great artists.

The book is short, and the story feels a little short. Perhaps this sensation is heightened by the contrast of the multiple plots in the Roald Dahl screenplay. The book, set about 50 years after the film adaptation, follows the Potts’ family (living mother included) as they pour effort and love into refurbishing an ancient and decaying car, which turns out to be magical. A day at the beach becomes a spirited and dangerous adventure at sea, which in turn leads to the discovery of a burglars’ hideout. Heroics ensue.

The story is a tidy tale of a stout-hearted little family, fearless adventurers and ingenuous everyone. The writing style is the extremely comforting narration style found in many of the best classic children’s chapter books. Oddly enough, Fleming’s voice in this book is reminiscent of much in Roald Dahl’s popular titles. Overall, the story is extremely original, full of likeable protagonists, and full of all sorts of danger in turns, with just a hint of the spooky here and there. Anyone looking for an original read aimed at kids will be pleased.

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Further Reading

“In The Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

 

55 Classics Review #7 – The Giver by Lois Lowry


I expected to enjoy The Giver more than I did. Then I enjoy it more than I suspected I had.

Almost everyone else read this book in like 5th grade. I missed it. My impression has long been that most people hold a relatively positive memory of the book, so I have been looking forward to it for some time. All I really knew is that it was set in some type of dystopia; I always get excited to start a classic title whose plot is relatively unknown to me.

Although I wasn’t too discouraged, I was immediately put off by the writing style Lowry employs. I tend to have trouble reading dystopian stories because of their sterility and Lowry’s style felt more sterile than her fiction environments. It was easy and interesting reading though, so I had little trouble continuing. She really does a good job of keeping you guessing on a lot of the details of the future world she creates and of making you begin to wonder whether the characters will ever even grow discontent with the world they have been given. I caught myself nervously wondering if perhaps she was actually promoting this world when I reached the halfway point in the text and still no one was revolted by the strictly-governed world at hand. Then, in the blink of an eye, the book became a roller coaster of emotions, rebellion, and deep, impactful character decisions.

Eventually, I realized that Lowry had tricked me with her disturbingly sterile writing style. I expected her characters to revolt immediately. She made me understand them in their original state for so long that I was afraid I would be asked to approve of their world. She also forced me to approach the very old questions of death, war, beauty, art, and human relationships from an altogether new direction. I think about these issues constantly, yet I found myself looking at them from a different vantage point. I asked myself “If art and war require one another, would it be better to forgo both or accept both?”

Without giving away the plot, I will say that the end of the book is both jarringly abrupt and quite open to interpretation. I turned the page expecting the text to continue and read THE END. Then I flipped back again. Then I wet my fingers and tried to separate the pages. No, that’s just the way it ends. And it’s actually a great and important way to end the book.

I thought I would enjoy The Giver as a thoughtful and youthful read, but it turned out to be a bit trickier. As I read on, frustrated at every turn, I looked back and realized that all the things I didn’t enjoy made immense sense in retrospect.

Although it’s hard to find another category for it, I would argue that The Giver is not a dystopian story in the classic sense. Most dystopias are strife-filled quasi-allegories meant to highlight the extreme errors available to humanity if there is not a healthy political and technological balance. The Giver makes its new, relation-less world look, well, okay. Once we can begrudgingly agree to this, it asks us if okay is something we can settle for.

Then we wrestle.