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The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder & the Light from an Ancient Sky
New World Library, 2013 / While "Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians" may sound like the invention of a perfervid novelist, it was a real institution established by Congress in 1898 in Canton, South Dakota, that, among other things, straitjacketed children, locked them in subterranean holes, shackled adults to pipes, beds, and radiators and forced them to lie in their own excrement. It was demolished in 1927, determined to have largely imprisoned Native Americans who were misunderstood or otherwise economically or politically inconvenient. The asylum is one of two realities that ground the final volume of Kent Nerburn's Neither Dog Nor Wolf trilogy, the other being, by contrast, a memoirist storyline that compels readers to reconsider their relationship with Earth. It's Nerburn's story of tracing, on behalf of her older brother, the fate of Yellow Bird, a young Dakota girl lost to the asylum many years ago. It's also a story of spiritual enlightenment: Nerburn's experience stepping out of the mathematically matrixed Western understanding of the world onto the Native American path of acutely listening to what the trees, birds, frogs, buffalo -- and our own dreams -- have to teach us.
Kent Nerburn, B.A. '68, American Studies; Ph.D., Graduate Theological Union
and University of California, is the author of 13 books and a two-time winner of
the Minnesota Book Award. Reviewer Mary Pattock is the editor of Reach.
Caring Democracy : Markets , Equality, and Justice
Joan C. Tronto
NYU Press, 2013 / Brilliant, profound, and provocative are the adjectives that came to mind as I read -- and kept underlining as I read -- Professor Joan Tronto's new book. It is brilliant in examining the question of care in all its aspects and complexity. Who needs it, who gives it, and who or what is cared for or about is her subject. Her argument that everyone requires care in different ways and at different times but that too many get "passes" from responsibility for providing it is well documented and a challenge to policy makers. Her profound analysis of public education is only one of her examples of care in a democracy.
We can't have equality if we value everything in market terms and thus devalue care work is her provocative conclusion. If we truly believe in democracy, we must take into account our needs for care, but this will not be simple. It will require that those who provide care and those who receive it be heard. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in politics or public policy.
Tronto is chair of the Department of Political Science. Reviewer Arvonne Fraser, B.A. '48, political science, served from 1992 to 1994 as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Five Billion Years of Solitude
Penguin Group, 2013 / Finding life on another planet would be the greatest discovery in human history. But beyond sci-fi fantasies of aliens swooping in to say hello, how do scientists actually locate distant worlds that could harbor life? Five Billion Years of Solitude, by Lee Billings, provides the answers. Billings covers everything from the formation of the young earth to the impending death of our solar system, and the book does an especially good job of balancing human details (e.g., about the ego-driven early days of planet-hunting in the 1990s) with big, oh-wow ideas about, say, interplanetary communication and exploration. (If you like to jot notes in the margins, be prepared to make some big exclamation points.) Above all, the book examines whether or not Earth -- and by extension, human civilization -- is special. Does intelligent life exist elsewhere, or are we alone in the cosmos? No matter the answer, Billings's multi-billion-year story proves what a special moment we're living through right now -- the first potential peek at life among the stars.
Lee Billings, B.A. '03, journalism, is a freelance science journalist. He lives in New York City. Reviewer Sam Kean, B.A. '02, English and physics, is the author of the bestselling The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb.
Leaving Rollingstone: A Memoir
Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013 / Kevin Fenton's first book was the award-winning 2011 novel Merit Badges, which shares with this new memoir a setting (1970s southeastern Minnesota), a few key plot points, and a theme of wholeness splintering. But rather than diving into his tale of growing up near Winona and losing his father too early (as the novel does), Leaving Rollingstone interrogates the story. What was the context for the family exuberance he remembers before his dad's death? In what ways did his mother carry them all on her back? What pleasures and friends and mentors laid the groundwork for the place of sobriety and joyful work he finally built so many years later? Fenton telescopes in and out of eloquently described memories, enjoying the opportunity memoir offers to reflect, to reconsider, to re-envision the story he has told himself. He takes a treasured vision--what it was to feel effortlessly at home in the world--and peels back nostalgia to present a harder truth: how much effort went into that feeling. There's beauty in the complexity.
Author Kevin Fenton, MFA '05, creative writing, is a freelance advertising creative director and lives in Saint Paul. Reviewer Terri Sutton, MFA '03, is staff for the Department of English.
Ready for Air
University of Minnesota Press, 2013 / For every human being on this earth, there is a birth story. And for every baby born, a mother is born as well. Kate Hopper the mother was dragged into motherhood unexpectedly early by severe preeclampsia. She has written an emotionally honest and genuine account of her daughter Stella's birth at 32 weeks. Instead of being able to take their daughter home shortly after she was born, Kate and her husband had to leave her for weeks in the NICU, a world of beeping alarms, helplessness, fear, and frustration. While this is a birth story, it's a human story as well, not neatly tied with pink and blue bows. In this new world of motherhood Kate must deal with self-doubt, disappointment, trepidation, and isolation, but also triumph and a new ferocious love. Among other classes that Hopper teaches, she teaches women to write their own birth stories and memoirs.
Kate Hopper, M.F.A. '05, creative writing, has taught literature and creative writing at the CLA, The Loft Literary Center, writing workshops across the country, and online. She is the recipient of, among other awards, a Fulbright grant. Reviewer Colleen Ware, B.A. '91, English, is CLA's web editor.
The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories
Ecco, 2013 / Ethan Rutherford's debut collection of stories covers a wild range of subjects: Confederate soldiers testing a primitive submarine (that's the "coffin" of the title); 1912 Russian sailors braving Arctic ice; two 11-year-old boys exploring friendship in 1980s Seattle; a camp director describing a disastrous summer. What unites them, beyond Rutherford's uncanny ability to build believable worlds (whether contemporary, historical, or sci-fi), is the captivating tone, which steers a line between droll deadpan and desperation (with the occasional full-on foray into one or the other). The stories often feature groups of men/boys wielding projectiles -- bored and uneasy as they wait for the opportunity to use
them, distressed and excited when the time comes. Rutherford makes the reader feel for them as fragile creatures even as they clumsily destroy environments, people, themselves. Most are foot soldiers, not "deciders" in these skirmishes, but Rutherford doesn't let them off the hook; although his plots compel, this bright book's message is not inevitability but a bemused insistence that other, less damaging courses of action are available to us all.
Author Ethan Rutherford, MFA '09, creative writing, lives in Ohio. Reviewer Terri Sutton, MFA '03, is staff for the Department of English.
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