Tag Archives: Native Americans

In the City

The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set in A Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider (Public Affairs; $26.99; 352 pages)

Freelance writer Katherine Greider works hard at doing right by her subject, a one hundred and fifty-year-old tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side where she and her husband, David Andrews, spent several years creating their first real home.   The Archaeology of Home is her second book; however, due to the personal nature of the subject matter, it feels like it is the first.

There’s an almost self-conscious and nostalgic tone to the descriptions Ms. Greider provides the reader about her own experiences in the humble abode.   She emphasizes the overwhelming evidence that we are heavily impacted by the place we call home.   Our daily lives are filled with immediate issues and the layers of other lives lived before our occupancy are quite invisible to us.   This layering of past lives seems novel and foreign to someone who currently occupies a 16-year-old development home in California that was brand new when it was purchased.

Ms. Greider begins the book with a painstakingly constructed history of the geography and populations that inhabited the Lower East Side area where Number 239, East Seventh Avenue now sits.   The reader is made painfully aware of the appropriation of land from the Native Americans who had existed in the swampy area for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans who imposed their style of cultivation and land division upon the place.   Greider uses a monumental vocabulary that borders on pretentiousness when describing the various waves of inhabitants.   Perhaps it is the source material that’s influenced her voice?   Regardless, the reader may need the assistance of a dictionary or Google to clarify the meaning of some of the oblique words she’s chosen.

The tale warms up as does Greider’s voice when she gets to the relationships that matter most to her.   The two children she and her husband bring into the world during their occupancy of Number 239 are somewhat incidental to the telling.   Rather, it is her marriage and the travails she endures sorting out the meaning of living in a space with others that seems to dominate her personal revelations.

Some years into the author’s occupancy, Number 239 is deemed uninhabitable by building officials as its foundation has crumpled and the damp basement is a harsh reminder of the original swamp where the building was placed a century and a half ago.   Because Greider and her husband are co-op owners, they must deal with the other members of the co-op in order to decide the fate of the structure.   Their struggle is easy to relate to for anyone who has been a dweller in a multi-unit building or planned unit development.   No spoiler alert needed here as a quick search of Zillow will reveal the current status of the location.

The Archaeology of Home is an interesting and admirable, though flawed, effort by a New Yorker who clearly loves the notion of small parts of a city being home in the truest sense.   The reviewer spent the summer of 1968 living at 404 East 66th Street and enjoyed the sense of community found within the enormity of New York City.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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After the Goldrush

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon; $14.99; 339 pages)

“I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie…”   Neil Young

“I could always heal the birds,” he admits…  Echo takes his hand, “Joseph says that birds are the only creatures that have blind faith.   This is why they are able to fly.”

Ilie Ruby has crafted a magically moving novel composed of disparate elements: a tragic childhood death, a kidnapped woman, American Indian (Seneca) ghosts and spirits, wolves that interact with humans, unrequited love, and a parent’s illness.   The book is also replete with dysfunctional families who, sadly, may represent normality in American life.   Dysfunctional families are fueled by shame and secrets, and the secrets are kept until they must be divulged in order to save lives.

Two of the key characters in The Language of Trees are Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell.   Grant is a half-blooded Seneca with the power to cure sick and wounded birds and animals.   He is also a person who cannot cure himself.   Then there’s Echo, who feels that she is lost in her life in spite of the fact that she’s true to herself.   Echo is the one person in the story who is free, except that she’s not aware of it.   And, except for Echo, the book is populated with characters that are haunted by the past – literally and figuratively – as they search for peace and redemption.

“Happiness is just as hard to get used to as anything else.”

The Language of Trees is written in a cinematic style.   It begins slowly and it takes the reader some time to absorb all of the many characters and to understand the personal issues affecting them all.   There’s also more than a touch of mysticism and magic to the story.   There are unique and spiritual events that will seem almost commonplace to those with even a touch of Native American blood.   (The author demonstrates a great deal of respect for Indian folklore and beliefs.)

What is initially calm builds to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion.   Coming to the final pages, I was reminded of the style of Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides, which found this reader both excited and sad that the journey was about to end.   As with Conroy’s novels, Ruby leaves us with a life’s lesson, which is that one must let go of the demons of the past in order to “not (be) afraid of the future anymore.”   Once the nightmares of the past have been left behind, we are free to soar like birds.

At its conclusion, this novel has the power to transport the reader to a better place.

“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.”   (N. Young)

The Language of Trees is nothing less than masterful and transformational.   Let’s hope that we will not have to wait too long for Ms. Ruby’s next novel.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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And Your Bird Can Sing: Alex and Me

Alex and Me (lg.)Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is an inspiring read about:  “How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process.”   The story is about evenly split between Alex’s pioneering work in the study of avian intelligence – it was Alex who turned the phrase “bird brain” into a positive – and the relationship between the author and her pet.   However, as Pepperberg makes quite clear, Alex – who died in early July of 2007 – was often The Boss of both the scientist and her laboratory assistants!

I found the writing style to be a bit rough and awkward in the first part of the tale.   The writing also suffers from mixed tenses.   For example, Pepperberg uses the current tense in describing events that occurred in the past, “Obviously, my students and I have no problem understanding the sounds Alex makes.”

But the author found her voice at the halfway point of the narrative, describing her arrival in Tucson:

“…Tucson brought tears to my eyes – literally, as I fairly quickly developed allergies…   but metaphorically, too, because of its beauty, majestic in its mountains, deserts, and giant saguaro cacti, and in its details, the animals, the smaller plants and the birds.   Oh, the birds!

For the first time in my life I felt deeply connected to nature, the rich diversity of the Sonora Desert fauna and flora…   And in a part of the country where the Native American presence is palpable, I was very much aware of that people’s sense of oneness with nature.”

Perhaps this experience inspired Pepperberg to see Alex as a representative of Nature with a capital “n”.   There are several cute and charming stories in this book that illustrate Alex’s keen intelligence, none of which I wish to give away here; they are better saved for the enjoyment of future readers.

This reader enjoyed the human-bird interaction sections more than the animal intelligence portions which sometimes bordered on the overly technical with words like “anticipatory co-articulation” (referring to linguistic analysis).   And some will find that Pepperberg, who loved Alex, comes off a bit dry and reserved in tone when compared to authors of similar animal love stories like Stacey O’Brien (Wesley the Owl) or William Jordan (A Cat Named Darwin).   Despite this, Pepperberg’s deep love and awe for Alex shows itself in the end.

Alex’s final words to Pepperberg – as she left the animal lab one evening – were, “You be good.   I love you.   You’ll be in tomorrow?”

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note:  The hardbound version of this book was purchased by the reviewer.   A trade paperback version (pictured) will be released on September 1, 2009.

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