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New Releases: Americana and Escapism

In a lot of ways, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, from it’s tenuous connection to American History, to its overt endorsement of gluttony. Thanksgiving 2016 felt particularly and uniquely “American” as the lead up to this year’s holiday was filled with SNL sketches about how to deal with your family in a political climate that is ripe for “my conservative uncle” jokes.

This post-Thanksgiving week is known for being the jump-off to holiday shopping. Perhaps to meet the demands of our current climate, a collection of timely documentations of the American experience and much-needed escapism are hitting the shelves this week.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Book Cover
Daniel L. Dreisbach
Oxford University Press
Hardcover $34.95 (344pp)
978-0-19-998793-1

This enlightening history volume shows how the Bible shaped the founders’ consciousness.

Daniel L. Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers focuses on the Bible’s significant influence on colonial America and its political philosophy. This is an engaging and scholarly survey of America’s forefathers and their religious beliefs.

As Dreisbach, a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, notes, the Bible—primarily the King James version—was the preeminent book of the founders’ era. It was used as a moral compass and a common source of wisdom, metaphor and general language. It became a guiding force in the rejection of British tyranny, and even the Liberty Bell bears an inscription from Leviticus.

Still, the founders were not blind followers of biblical teachings. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson cultivated diverse interests and philosophies, with inclinations toward Deism rather than orthodox Christianity. As men of reason, they also did not care for fire-and-brimstone superstitions or the concept of a vengeful God.

Dreisbach’s chapter on Jefferson’s perception of Jesus Christ is particularly fascinating. While Jefferson believed that Christ’s teachings were exemplary and even “perfect,” he rejected mystical aspects of Christ, including the virgin birth, the resurrection, and some of the miracles attributed to him. To create his own abridged Bible, Jefferson literally excised sections with “scissors and paste pots.” However, Dreisbach stresses how Jefferson realized his theories were not for everyone, and that he freely admitted to being “of a sect by myself.”

Contrasts are drawn. The nation’s original biblical ideology looked for upstanding leaders, without “deceit and hypocrisy, guile and falsehood”—qualities now not often associated with American politics. And as slaveholders, both Washington and Jefferson clearly did not apply biblical concepts of liberty to all peoples. Still, George Washington’s ideal of American liberty, taken from the book of Micah, that they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, endures, in America’s history and its hopes.

Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers in an enlightening historical volume.

MEG NOLA (November 18, 2016)

Secrets of Worry Dolls

Book Cover
Amy Impellizzeri
Wyatt-MacKenzie
Softcover $14.95 (312pp)
978-1-942545-65-1

Impellizzeri does well with the small details that make her characters feel like real people.

In Secrets of Worry Dolls, Amy Impellizzeri winningly weaves together the stories of a mother and daughter, using large-scale tragedies to explore the smaller tragedies of her characters and the experiences they kept from one another. Both women are well drawn, and their stories take surprising turns that deepen their relationship.

The main narrative takes place in the months leading up to December 2012, the date the long-count Mayan calendar ended, with chapters set “X days before the end of the world.” The daughter, Lu, decides at the last minute not to take a flight from New York City to her mother’s childhood home of Guatemala—a flight that crashes in her neighborhood shortly after takeoff. With her mother, Mari, in a coma and their home damaged, Lu learns some of Mari’s most closely held secrets.

Both characters’ perspectives come in the first person, with chapters alternating between Lu and Mari. Lu’s story takes place mostly in the present, while Mari’s sections look back on her life. The women give their perspectives on major events, like losing Lu’s twin sister and Mari’s husband in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and on smaller ones, like meeting boyfriends and searching for meaning. In many cases, Lu and her mother share things that they had never shared with one another before, and the gaps in their knowledge inform their development. Both Lu and Mari are three-dimensional, flawed but relatable, and their parallel stories of the past and present build upon one another well.

Secrets of Worry Dolls finds its way to an earned ending true to its characters, and to the world events that exact influence on them. Impellizzeri does well with the small details that make her characters feel like real people. This is a strong and memorable work of fiction.

JEFF FLEISCHER (November 15, 2016)

Detroit is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age

Book Cover
Camilo Jose Vergara
University of Michigan Press
Hardcover $55.00 (304pp)
978-0-472-13011-5

Vergara not only depicts Detroit’s past and present but also considers the city’s future.

Photographer Camilo Jose Vergara has made his name capturing images of the decline of America’s cities. Perhaps no city has declined more from its heyday to the present than Detroit, and Vergara’s latest work, Detroit is No Dry Bones: An Eternal City of the Industrial Age, tells the story of how a once-thriving industrial center has become home to ruins, graffiti art, and empty spots of urban landscape, yet may also be on the road to recovery.

Some of the most effective photographs in Vergara’s book are those that show the same buildings over time. In a 1998 image, the mansions of Brush Park and the area around them still look lovely; by 2003, the same structures look dilapidated, several trees are gone, and desolation stretches in front of the distant downtown skyline. The old Statler Hotel remains vacant but standing, in a 2001 photo; ten years later, its site is an undeveloped plot. Vergara uses many contrasting images like these, which underscore that Detroit still looked like itself a relatively short time ago.

At the same time, Vergara avoids turning this into mere “poverty porn.” He is on record as wanting parts of cities like Detroit to be preserved as ruins, and there’s an appreciation of keeping the past alive evident throughout the book. He also takes an interest in the city’s art, with some images of statues or signage in the city, and others of the street art that now covers many of the old structures. Photos depict the classic light fixtures of the city’s public library, the Tudor architecture of an old mansion, and the Motown Museum, as well as murals of President Obama, Nelson Mandela, or Rosa Parks created with spray paint on abandoned buildings.

The photos are obviously the bulk of the book, and Vergara is a talented visual storyteller, but the book also features chapters that give the images context. Interviews with locals and stories about the way old buildings have been repurposed offer hints about Detroit’s revival. Detroit is No Dry Bones not only depicts the past and present but also considers the city’s future.

JEFF FLEISCHER (November 10, 2016)

Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey

Book Cover
Anne Mendelson
Columbia University Press
Hardcover $35.00 (336pp)
978-0-231-15860-2

The book shows that the popularity of the cuisine is due, in part, to the fact that it was never strictly Chinese.

Anne Mendelson’s Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey is a thoughtful and absorbing study of how Cantonese laborers from the poorest region of China established the cuisine that took America by storm.

All immigrants bring their favorite dishes to America with them, but the Chinese experience was unique. Impoverished workers, drawn by the California gold rush, found doors slammed in their faces. Laws forbade Chinese prospecting and excluded the Chinese from the labor force.

Yet, according to Anne Mendelson, it was the virulence of racism that forced Chinese immigrants to become entrepreneurs. Her book traces the dual integration of Chinese people and Chinese food into the American mainstream from their initial migration to the 1970s, when focus shifted to Hunan, Szechuan, and other regional cuisines.

American-Chinese cuisine is a trickle-up story, from the first ventures that supplied inexpensive, filling, and tasty food to railroad workers, to its entry into haute cuisine, thanks to the enthusiasm of American celebrities. The book shows that the popularity of the cuisine is due, in part, to the fact that it was never strictly Chinese. Not all the ingredients available in Canton could be found in America, nor did all Cantonese dishes please Americans. Chinese food got its toehold by adapting and incorporating American flavors and ingredients, making it an early and highly successful experiment in fusion cuisine.

Though clearly a work of scholarship, prose is accessible and laced with interesting anecdotes. In explaining why soy sauce is ubiquitous on Chinese-American tables, for example, Mendelson notes that the condiment is used sparingly in traditional Cantonese dishes, but Americans like the brown tint it gives dishes like crispy fried rice. In short, it makes the food look the way Americans believe it should look.

This warts-and-all story of America’s response to a large and productive segment of the immigrant population sheds light not only on a unique cuisine, but on how immigrants and long-time residents interact to produce a constantly new and dynamic national culture.

SUSAN WAGGONER (November 15, 2016)


Seth Dellon
Seth Dellon is director of audience development at Foreword Reviews. You can meet him or hear him speak at most of the events Foreword attends, and contact him at seth@forewordreviews.com.

Seth Dellon

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