Tags: book review


Book Review: Touring America by Automobile in the 1920s

If, like me, you read the title Touring America by Automobile in the 1920s and all but swoon with joy - and swoon again when you realize that this is a primary source, a diary that a woman named Hepzy Moore Cook write during two early American road trips with her husband (one to Yellowstone and the other through the South) - then this is the book for you. There’s lots of good information about the experience of road-tripping in early cars,with their constant tire troubles and the poor state of the roads and the all-but-nonexistent hotel system outside the cities. They either camp or rent rooms in private homes.

I realize that capsule summary makes traveling in the 1920s sound awful, but actually as I was reading it sounds delightfully adventurous (well, except for the part where the diary-writer gets dysentery). I wish there’d been a bit more information about the food, but one can’t have everything. And there is a lot of interesting information about the understanding of history at the time, especially the Civil War: it was sixty years ago by this 1927 road trip, but there’s still a sense of it as a raw spot on the national psyche. The highest praise Hepzy can offer for a Civil War memorial is to say that it shows the spirit of reconciliation.

However, if this sort of thing doesn’t make your heart go pitter-patter, it’s probably not the book for you. The interest is all in the subject matter; the writing is pedestrian at best. It also includes a few clunky typos - I’m not sure typos is the right word for them; but there are places where the author/editor, Hepzy Moore Cook’s grandson William A. Cook, has written something that sounds kind of like the right word but isn’t, including this gem:

“The Prohibition era would also be the geniuses of another popular form of racing in America - stock car racing.”

Geniuses. Isn’t that great? (I’m apt to make these too, although I don’t think I ever made one quite as sublime as geniuses for genesis.)

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Book Review: The Kingdom of Women

Choo Waihong’s The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains absolutely fascinated me, because it’s a sort of memoir/ethnography of the Mosuo people in Yunnan province, who are one of the last remaining matrilineal groups on Earth - and that matrilineal heritage is fast eroding as better roads, radios, and televisions bring the dominant attitudes of the rest of China into Mosuo homes.

However, the book is not about this erosion, but about the matrilineal culture as it still existed when Choo first visited the province. (She soon had a second home built there and began to visit often.) This is a society with no marriage: men and women both live in their mother’s home until the mother dies, and then the sisters found their own homes and their brothers continue to live with them.

People of both sexes can have as many lovers as they want; the men come to visit their female lover at her house. (All women receive their own room upon coming of age, to give them privacy for this.) Many people do eventually settle down to a stable relationship with a single axia, but the man continues to live in his matrilineal home and the children’s main male influences are their uncles, not their father, who may in any case be an axia who their mother dispensed with long ago.

And, because the basic building block of the family is the matriline, the Mosuo have none of the emphasis on female purity/virginity and total fidelity in marriage and accompanying male jealousy that bedevils patriarchal societies: there’s no need to ensure that the husband is the father, because there are no husbands and fathers don’t matter.

I found this all just about as delightful as Choo does, which makes me worry that we may both be gazing upon the Mosuo with rose-tinted glasses: any society has problems, surely. Although Choo does take up the question of whether Mosuo society devalues men the way that traditional Chinese society devalues women, and concludes that it doesn’t, certainly not to anything like the same extent; men don’t contribute to continuation of the matriline, but they as individuals are still valuable parts of it.

There were times when I wish that Choo went into more depth - I would have particularly liked to hear more about Mosuo attitudes on homosexuality, although I realize this may be a difficult topic to get info about. The one time Choo asks, her friends basically laugh the topic off, and there’s only so far you can push without getting rude, and after all they are her friends and not research subjects.

Aside from its intrinsic interest, I think this book is a fabulous jumping-off point for worldbuilding for a fantasy novel: it gives you the bones of how a matrilineal society can work, and you could build any number of different societal bodies off of that.

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Book Review: White Birch, Red Hawthorn

I found Nora Murphy’s White Birch, Red Hawthorn irritating for three main reasons.

1. This is one of those books that is neither pure memoir nor pure nonfiction but a combination of the two, and as often happens, the memoir portion is comparatively a drag. For a book that is allegedly about the importance of learning to listen (specifically to the stories of Native Americans), Murphy spends an awful lot of time talking about herself and her family history.

2. This is especially egregious because Murphy has the unfortunate habit of making shit up. She’ll start with a verifiable fact: for instance, after much digging, she discovers that her great-great-grandmother who emigrated to the US from Ireland was named Katie Hughes.

Then - and note she doesn’t have letters or a diary or any other record of Katie’s feelings, or really anything at all to go on except for Katie’s name - she writes stuff like “Still even in this silence [in a cemetery in Ireland], Katie found gifts - like the warm feeling that spread over her as they left the tombs. It was the feeling that someone was there, still watching over her after all these thousands of years.”

DID SHE NOW. I can only assume that Murphy has a telepathic connection with her great-great-grandmother that she’s too shy to cite as a source.

3. And this leads to my third frustration with the book, which is its sentimentality - in particular the weird sentimental gloss that Murphy throws over her ancestors’ life in Ireland. Murphy says things like “What I do know is that Katie didn’t thirst for her story as a child. She didn’t feel parched for connection. My great-great-grandmother’s story was woven into the very Irish landscape that reared her. She didn’t have to go out searching for a lineage.”

Well, uh, no, she was probably busy thirsting for actual food and drink, growing up during the potato famine and all. And who says she didn’t thirst for her story? She was a member of a conquered people living in a conquered land, with conquerors who were making a determined effort to stamp out her people’s language and stories. That’s not a situation that tends to give people a clear and unfettered connection to their past and their land.

To be fair, Murphy is a little better at seeing this with regard to Native Americans, presumably because she interviews living members of the Ojibwe and Ho-Chunk tribes rather than her imagined simulacrum of her great-great-grandmother and real people, unlike imaginary ones, can pull you up short.

I could go on, but at this point I’m probably beating a dead horse. Did not enjoy, do not recommend.

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Book Review: A Daughter of To-Day

I finished Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Daughter of To-Day nearly a year ago, and have been meaning to write a review of it ever since, although I have been scuppered by the fact that there are too many things I like about it. It’s a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl book, and it meanders a bit at the beginning - in fact for about the first third; but when our heroine Elfrida meets another young girl artist, Janet, the book snaps into gear.

I’ve rarely seen a portrait of a friendship between two girls as well done as this one: they admire each other, they’re very fond of each other, and yet their understandings of art and human relationships are so at odds that despite their affection, their friendship is difficult and painful for them both.

At one point, for instance, Janet goes on holiday in Scotland, and they agree to exchange letters with each other. Elfrida writes marvelously artistic letters - when she feels like it; “when she was not in the mood she did not write at all. With an instinctive recognition of the demands of any relation such as she felt her friendship to Janet Cardiff to be, she simply refrained from imposing upon her anything that savored of dullness or commonplaceness.</i>

So the fact that she sometimes writes just three lines, and sometimes doesn’t write for three weeks, is meant to be a tribute to Janet as an artist: they’re both above such conventionalities as writing regular missives.

But Janet, although she is just as talented as Elfrida (and I think one of the triumphs of the book is the recognition that the difference here is not one of talent but of temperament, or perhaps upbringing), can’t understand this: She wished, more often than she said she did, that Elfrida were a little more human, that she had a more appreciative understanding of the warm value of common every-day matters between people who were interested in one another.

In Janet’s eyes, their friendship demands a willingness to exchange exactly the sort of commonplace news - and to see it as interesting, rather than dull - that Elfrida feels they ought to be above.

Inwardly she cried out for something warm and human that was lacking to Elfrida’s feeling for her, and sometimes she asked herself with a grieved cynicism how her friend found it worth while to pretend to care so cleverly.

And Elfrida - although the book, which is almost entirely in her point of view in the first half, has moved out of it by this time - clearly feels a sort of mirror image of the same thing: Janet is too bound by the conventionalities to enter into Elfrida’s conception of art; she may be fond of Elfrida, in her way, but to Elfrida there’s always something lacking in that friendship, always something that Janet is reserving. They like each other - like may not even be a strong enough word; they are charmed by each other, enchanted by each other - but they can’t quite approve of each other.

And it is this, more than anything else, that destroys their friendship - although of course Kendal, a young male artist of their acquaintance, also plays a role. It is apparently impossible to write about girls’ friendship without having them both fall for the same boy at the same time, or at least without Elfrida falling for the idea that Kendal is bewitched by her and Janet falling for him.

But even this subplot has its compensations.

Once when Kendal seemed to Janet on the point of asking her what she thought of his chances, she went to a florist’s in the High, and sent Elfrida a pot of snowy chrysanthemums, after which she allowed herself to refrain from seeing her for a week. Her talk with her father about helping Elfrida to place her work with the magazines had been one of the constant impulses by which she tried to compensate her friend, as it were, for the amount of suffering that young woman was inflicting upon her - she would have found a difficulty in explaining it more intelligibly than that.

I have done this - not in exactly the same situation, but still, the same idea, trying to assuage my conscience by doing something nice for someone I am angry at because I know my anger is not exactly fair. I'm not sure I've ever seen this portrayed in a book before.

But getting back to things that bother me about this book, there’s the ending. Collapse )

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Book Review: The Year of Small Things

I have been struggling for the past few days to write a review of Sarah Arthur & Erin Wasinger’s The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us, because I really liked the book - enough that I am thinking of getting a paper copy, even though I’ve already got it on my Kindle from Netgalley - but I can’t seem to find the right approach to get started.

Partly this is because there’s just so much here that one could talk about. Do I start with the idea of New Monasticism, which I had never heard of before this book, and which so intrigued me that I’ve cribbed a list of further reading from The Year of Small Things?

Or how about the critique of self-help, and not just self-help but self-reliance as a concept? The idea that we should be able to help ourselves, all on our own, with no help from the outside but a paperback, only digs us deeper into the kind of self-centered isolation that is often the problem we need help with in the first place. We try to help ourselves and wonder why it doesn’t work when we’re tackling the wrong problem - because the right one is the lack of community, which by definition we can’t change on our own.

Have you shared with anyone your hopes, your longings? Could you be so vulnerable? Because in being this boldly honest, we’re moving beyond ‘support’ as a euphemism for benign interest and into physically feeling the weight of burdens and the weightlessness of one another’s joys - truly supporting each other.

The book has two authors precisely to underscore this point: both families are interested in shaping their lives around the ideas of radical faith, and they make a covenant of mutual aid for this endeavor because they know that trying to go it alone will almost inevitably lead to backsliding. Radical faith is demanding.

One of the subthemes of the book, in fact, is the concern that radical faith is a sort of luxury good - it’s a demanding doctrine that attracts healthy young childless white people, who almost inevitably slip away from it as they grow older and get spouses and children and health problems and aging parents to care for etc. etc. etc. Is it possible to follow it while parenting small children (as both Arthur and Wasinger do) or having depression (as Wasinger does)?

Wasinger’s depression comes up throughout the book, and has a chapter largely devoted to it, which is refreshing: in self-help books (Christian and secular) that aren’t specifically about mental illness, often you can practically hear the tires screeching as the authors speed away from the topic. (This is especially funny because lots of self-help books give advice that would fit right into a CBT book. There’s really only so much good advice to go around in this world, I suppose.)

Wasinger made a comment about her depression that resonated with me:

When I’m at the worst of my depression, I’m alone, and I want to be left alone, but then, not.

I have the book on Kindle so I could not draw little stars in the margin and write THAT’S IT, but, nonetheless. THAT’S IT.

It strikes me that I’ve never seen loneliness or feelings of isolation on a list of depression symptoms. Maybe it’s not that common? Or maybe “feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness” are supposed to cover it.

Or another passage that stuck out to me:

Being transparent about our struggles makes us vulnerable. We’re humbled. We’re on level ground with those with whom we share life. We cannot afford to be self-reliant; we cannot pretend to be anyone’s savior. We cannot pretend to be in control; we’re ever at the mercy of God (see Ps. 37). Perhaps our broken minds or bodies are leveling grounds where those whom we are tempted to ‘serve’ instead become people with whom we see eye to eye.

The identification of service as a temptation - a disguise for the sin of pride; a thinly veiled way of proving to oneself that one is better than everyone else. That struck me.

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Book Review: The Altars Where We Worship

The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture is about the way that various pop culture phenomenon - sports, beauty standards, TV - have become vehicles for meaning and purpose in our lives as more traditional religious guidelines have waved in importance.

This sounds like it might make a really interesting book, but in actual fact it's soooo boring. It's incredibly repetitive: the authors are clearly deeply concerned that we the readers may not buy that one could fruitfully apply the framework of religious studies to football fandom or rigorous adherence to beauty standards/strict quasi-religious health food crazes (paleo, anyone?), but you know, I was just willing to take that as a given.

And if I wasn't, I wouldn't have been convinced by mere repetition of the assertion that this framework is totally a useful way to study pop culture, without much in the way of concrete evidence to back it up. Surely a book about pop culture ought to quote pop cultural sources at least as much as it quotes Foucault?

The authors also commit themselves to taking a non-judgmental stance on all this, which sounds good in the abstract but is, as a reading experience, also super boring. I don't demand that they should have gone all fire and brimstone about it; it just seems to me that buildings one's life on the foundation stone of fulfilling modern beauty standards, for instance, is such a bad idea that it's hard to write about it fairly without pointing out, well, what a bad idea it is, because unless you are Tilda Swinton (and therefore possibly a vampire) it's going to bite you in the ass as you age and your everything begins to sag.

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Book Review: My Life with Bob

I enjoyed Pamela Paul's My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, but in a much more low-key way than I was expecting. It's a memoir about Paul's reading life, which is a genre that ought to be larger in my opinion, although future practitioners ought to take Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris as their guide rather than My Life with Bob.

The problem with My Life with Bob, honestly, is that there's too much regular memoir here and not nearly enough detail about the books. I want my book memoirs like my food memoirs, rich in sensory detail. I want to feel sun-warmed peach juice dribbling off my skin; I want to catch my breath along with the author (who has become the reader again) as she races toward the ending of the second Hunger Games book, exhausted from giving birth but nonetheless so engrossed in the story that she picks it up again as soon as the baby's sleeping and all is quiet. Paul mentions this experience, but it's not vivid enough for me to feel it with her.

I want this even if I haven't read the book myself. Especially if I haven't read the book myself. I didn't come out of this book filled with the overwhelming urge to read any of the books it mentioned, which I think is really a sign of failure in a book-about-books.

Having said this, I think part of the problem is that the Venn diagram of our literary tastes only have a small area of overlap, and even that overlap is mostly illusory. Both Paul and I loved Anna Karenina, for instance, but Paul identified with Anna, whereas it didn't even occur to me that you could identify with Anna. Levin was clearly where it was at. You read the Anna sections because you have to in order to dive breathlessly into the next bit about Levin and Kitty.

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friends, shoes

Book Review: Getting Grief Right

Patrick O'Malley's Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss is actually about the dangers of attempting to grieve "correctly," to fit grief into the one-size-fits-all template of the five stages of grief outlined by Kubler-Ross. O'Malley is a psychologist, and he gets a lot of clients who come in and tell him that since the death of their spouse/child/parent/parakeet they haven't been moving through the stages properly but got stuck on anger, or depression, or whatever, and in any case it's been nine months since they lost their loved one and the experts say that if you're still grieving after six you're probably cray-cray, so can he help them?

O'Malley has come around to the view that, insofar as help means "help them go through the five stages properly and get over their grief," he can't; most people don't grief neatly in five stages and, if the loss is big enough, lots of people feel at least occasional stabs of grief for the rest of their lives. But he can help them feel less like freaks by telling them that it's totally normal for grief to be chaotic and disorderly and to continue feeling a subterranean hum of grief long after society says you should be over it.

Now, I actually agree with a lot of the stuff in this book. I think our culture promotes a ludicrously foreshortened grief schedule, and we'd probably all be better off if we spent less time telling each other what we're allowed to feel - not even how we're allowed to express our feelings, mind, but what we're allowed to feel in the first place - and more just listening to what we actually do feel.

(I realize that "Have you considered therapy?" is often meant lovingly, and there are times when it needs to be said, but it has the sub-meaning "Your pain is so incredibly tedious that you can't expect anyone to listen to it if they're not actually getting paid." No wonder our society is so full of people who feel miserable and alone and believe to the bottom of their souls that they will only have value if they achieve success, as defined by money-making.)

Nonetheless, reading Getting Grief Right sometimes gave me the same feeling of exhaustion I get when I read, say, dietary studies, when it turns out that everything the previous generation of scientists said is wrong. Fat doesn't make you fat! Eggs are good for you after all! Margarine is in fact way less healthy than butter! Et cetera. Those old scientists got it all wrong, but you should totally believe us new scientists when we tell you carbs are evil.

And it's like, well, why? Why should I believe you this time round when you've gotten it wrong time and time again for the past hundred years? Why, in fact, should I believe psychiatrists about pretty much anything, if psychiatry as a profession finds it baffling that people, lots of people, indeed possibly the majority of people, might feel crushingly sad about the death of their loved ones for more than six months? This is a pretty damn basic thing to get wrong.

Twenty years from now, they're going to decide that carbs are fine but protein is totally making us fat, and also the by-then-orthodox method of grief through storytelling is straitjacketing us in our misery and we should actually grieve through interpretive dance or something.

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Book Review: The Not-Quite States of America

Doug Mack's The Not-Quite States of America has an excellent premise and a so-so execution. The book is an exploration of America's inhabited offshore territories - American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam - which are not states, not in any clear sense on the road to statehood, and not exactly subject to the US Constitution, although it's also not clear which parts apply and which don't.

I, like most Americans (as Mack points out), knew very little about the territories before I read this book - I'm not sure I even knew that Guam was a territory, in fact - and in that sense it's a useful book, and a fun, breezy read as well.

But it feels more surface-y than I would like. Mack visited all the territories as he was writing it, but for only a few weeks each, so it ends up having a touristy sort of feel, which is only heightened by the fact that Mack doesn't seem to have done a whole lot of book research, either. I really think this book might have been better served with an author who had lived in at least one of the territories for a while.

I also think - and this is not the book's fault at all - that this book is going to suffer from an unfortunately timed release date. Under other circumstances, people might be very interested in the question of whether the Constitution ought to apply to the US Territories, but as it is I don't think many readers will get worked up about it. Most of us are too busy worrying about whether the Constitution will continue to apply within the continental US itself.

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Book Review: Caught in the Revolution

I loved Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge, which retells the story of Russia’s two 1917 revolutions (the first overthrowing the tsar in the spring; the second establishing the Bolsheviks in the fall) through the reports of on-scene Western observers. It’s told in strictly chronological order, the book taking the reader through the year as people living through it experienced (except of course we don’t have to spend hours upon hours standing in frigid bread lines), which gives it all a breathless on-the-ground feeling of immediacy. Even though I already knew how it would end - Bolsheviks take over, the end - I found myself on tenterhooks, wondering if Kerensky would get it together and assassinate Lenin. (No.)

As frustrating as Kerensky is, though, I do also feel for him. He’s trying to establish a republic in Russia; of course he doesn’t want to kick off this new democratic future by executing his political opponents, even if those opponents are Trotsky and Lenin who are dashing about exhorting the populace to execute everyone under the sun.

Or at least Trotsky was. Lenin spent a lot of the year hiding safely out of the country, which does not give me much respect for him. Stand in some bread lines, Lenin!

Anyway, as interesting as all the political stuff is, the book is most interesting in all the fascinating detail it offers on what it was like to live in a city caught in the swirling vortex of revolution: the cold, the hunger, people walking with their children on quiet streets just blocks away from intense street-fighting, dead policemen left on the frozen Neva, the tattered remains of the American colony gathering together for one last Christmas celebration at an American-run bank that would be raided by the Red Guard only a few days later.

(There were - I had not realized this - large colonies of both Americans and British in Petrograd at the time of the Revolution. By the end of 1917 most of them were trying to get out, but I worry about the ones, English nannies who had been employed by the Russian nobility for instance, who had no money or connections or escape route. There’s no way to know if they got out in the end. I hope they did.)

The one criticism I have of the book is that things get a bit rushed at the end. This is understandable, as buckets of ink have already been spilled about the October Revolution (it being, after all, the one that stuck), but a little more detail would have made for a less abrupt ending.

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