History

You may not love the biography, but at least you learn something.

Thomas Hardy
by Claire Tomalin
Powells.com

Recently I spent about a month methodically plowing through Claire Tomalin's biography Thomas Hardy.

Hardy was on my mind because a new adaptation of his novel Far from the Madding Crowd is coming out this week. I've not read all of his novels, but I very much enjoyed Under the Greenwood Tree (which I only read after watching the BBC adaptation, thanks again, British TV) and a short story collection titled A Changed Man. I've read parts of Tess of the D'urbervilles and would very much like to finish the whole thing, and although I've read The Return of the Native, I don't remember it very well.*

So when I went looking for a biography of Hardy I thought I would try Tomalin's; I'd never read anything of hers before but her name was familiar and she's a well-regarded biographer.

Frankly? I didn't care for the book a whole lot. I enjoyed learning more about Hardy, but for some reason it just felt like a real slog to read his life story. And he didn't really lead a dull life (he rose from extremely humble beginnings to become a very well-off author; he was married twice and carried a serious torch for another married woman; he wrote some of the angriest, and at the time, most scandalous literature available). This also was probably not the right biography for me because Tomalin really seemed more intent on proving Hardy's worth as a poet than as a novelist. That's fine, but it almost seemed like she just skipped over the writing and importance of his best-selling novels.

Periodically she also used turns of phrases that seemed a bit heavy-handed to me. There's this, in a caption for a photo of Hardy's first wife: "Her situation as a wife whose husband no longer needed her was pathetic, and, although she was mocked by many and disliked by som, there is something touching about her childlike face." And this: "Hardy and Emma's failure to have children is the saddest thing about their life together. He would have made a gentle and humorous father, and a child would have given Emma a focus for her attention and love, and filled up the long hours when he was absorbed in his writing. It would have relieved the tensions and resentments that built up between them..." (p. 172.)

Now that all may be true. But it seems rather a lot to assume. Particularly because the rest of the biography paints Hardy as a man truly driven to write and spending a lot of time doing so. Sometimes he did not seem over-kind to his first wife (or his second wife, really), so, although there is evidence that he was a kind uncle and friend to several relatives' and friends' children, it seems a bit of a leap to say what kind of father he would have made.

So yeah, not my favorite biography ever. But informative. Which is another thing I really do like about nonfiction: even if you're not in love with the author's writing or style, you usually still get something for your time in the way of knowledge.

*What I do remember is that I read it because Holden Caulfield referenced it in the novel Catcher in the Rye: "I like that Eustacia Vye." Yes, I was so in love with Holden that I went and read what he read. Ah, youth.


A little trick for "book discoverability."

All the news in bookselling and librarianship the last few years has been about "book discoverability." Not a real complicated concept; basically, how do readers discover books?

Publishers are interested in this topic because, even though they are business people, the business of books is such that you can never be sure which book is going to be the next one to explode. So they want to know how to help people discover books that they want to buy. And of course librarians want to understand the topic for a related, but less mercenary, reason: they want to help people discover books they enjoy, often based on conversations with them about books they enjoyed in the past (and why they enjoyed them). That's what we call "readers' advisory." And of course readers have a vested interest in book discoverability, because all they want to do is constantly discover books that they will love, with no stinkers in the bunch to slow them down.

I love thinking about book discoverability because I can't for the life of me figure out how to stop discovering great books. Right now there are--wait, I'll go check--97 items checked out on my library card. A lot of those are books for the CRjrs, but the vast majority are books for me. They're not all the best books, or books that I'll love, but they're all books that I really want to read, and if I would ever get time to actually read them, would probably enjoy.

But today I'd like to talk about my favorite "trick" for discovering great books, and it is simply this: get to know interesting, smart, kind people...and then ask them what they're reading.

A few weeks ago I went to a birthday gathering for a former colleague. I don't get to see him often, but when I do it's always, always, an enjoyable and educational good time. When I asked him, right before we left (I should have asked earlier; I'm always a bit dithery these days, trying to make sure two young boys are properly dressed for the outside, we have all our toys and supplies, and, oh yes, trying to keep said young boys, who are both very antsy and very fast, in my immediate vicinity until we can make our exit), what he was reading, he told me about a book titled Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.*

So I got it from the library, and it's WONDERFUL. Exactly what the title promises. And it's a thoroughly satisfying book as BOOK--somewhat oversized, but not uncomfortable to hold; heavy, but not too heavy; and it comes with its own ribbon bookmark. It's not actually that text heavy; it's a big book because the letters are often shown in their original form, along with transcripts for easier reading. And they do indeed vary widely: from Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower, including her recipe for drop scones; from a Campbell Soup company executive to Andy Warhol; from a former slave to his previous owner (which is, you've got to read it to believe it, hilarious in the best possible way); Ray Bradbury to a fan; an otherwise un-famous older woman who describes her mastectomy surgery (done in 1855, mind you, without anaesthetic) to her daughter.

A wonderful read; completely engrossing. So a hearty thank you to my friend, for recommending it. Now: get out there this weekend and talk to some good people, and for the love of all that's holy, remember to ask them what they're reading.

*And yes, I think he actually quoted the entire subtitle from memory, so you can see why I love him.


Each subsequent chapter sadder than the last.

At least, that's sort of the way I felt as I made my way through Catherine Bailey's history book Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England.

All Anglophiles and general history readers should check this one out; it's the story of Great Britain's Fitzwilliam dynasty, based at the [unbelievably huge] Wentworth House estate in the Yorkshire region of England. Starting with the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, born in 1815, this book traces the family's intrigues, economics, and, above all, its geneaology, although the bulk of it focuses on the 7th and 8th Earls and their lives in the twentieth century.*

The family was immensely wealthy, and their wealth derived from the vast number of coal mines they owned and ran. So in addition to being a history of the very rich, this is also a history of the very, very poor. I read this one over the course of a few weeks, and whenever I did, I went to bed glad that I am not a coal miner. Holy shit. Dangerous job, unhealthy job, very poorly paid job; and often undertaken for rich families that might or might not be decent employers. I will say this for the Earls Fitzwilliam: particularly in the case of the 7th earl, "Billy," he did try to treat his people somewhat decently (enough so that he was remembered fondly in the neighborhood, and most of his workers never voted for strikes against him).

Although: the lives of the rich people don't sound like a whole lot of fun in this book either. Billy himself was the target of a campaign by his aunts to disinherit him; he was born in Canada and it was alleged that his father, who died before his own father and therefore was never an earl himself, took steps to replace the baby girl that was really born to him with a Canadian baby boy (so that he could inherit the title and wealth). Good lord. The whole "only males can inherit" thing has really messed up a lot of lives.

But I digress. It's an interesting book. Not a great one--it skips around some in time and that makes it a bit tough to follow, particularly when you consider that all the earls are named some variation of William something, and it all gets a bit confusing. But it was an engrossing read; if you're in an area of the country where there's still just a bit of winter left, this might be a good thick book to settle in with by the fire until spring really arrives. (Oh: and be glad you didn't have to dig out the coal to light for your fire.)

Other reviews: The Guardian; Kirkus

*And there's even a bit about one of the earls and his love affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, sister to JFK.


Only One Thing Can Save Us, by Thomas Geoghegan

I have two main things to say about labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan's interesting book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

First, when I started reading it, I was really digging it. It made total sense to me. It's a book about how things stand for "labor" (organized and not) in this country right now, and the author strikes a tone that seems, to me, totally reasonable:

"Of course it's for the young I feel sorry: after all, it was on our watch that a labor movement disappeared. Am I wrong or do they seem intimidated? So far as I can tell, at least on the El [in Chicago], they seem to shrink from one another. They stare pitifully down at their iPhones, which stare up pitilessly at them. Their own gadgetry sits in judgment of them.

But why pick on them? Everyone seems demoralized...More and more I have clients who have signed away their rights to be considered 'employees' at all--which means there's no minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, no Social Security, nothing. Years ago they should have said something when the HR people said: 'You're no longer employees here--but cheer up, you'll go on working for us as independent contractors.'...Sometimes I think: one day, every American worker will be a John Smith, Incorporated, every cleaning lady, every janitor, every one of us--it will be a nation of CEOs in chains. 'How did I let this happen?'

At some point, maybe 2034, it won't even occur to us to wonder. We'll just be too beat." (pp. 4-5.)

Now, the only thing I can argue with in the above is that I don't think it will take until 2034, or anywhere near it. So I enjoyed this book for the author's matter-of-fact tone. In fact, it didn't faze me in the least, until I left it in the bathroom, and Mr. CR said, "Holy cow, that is one depressing book you've got in the bathroom."

The second thing about this book is that I am not smart enough to read it right now. I really want to; I think the author has a lot of interesting things to say about where we've been with labor in this country and where we might want to think about going (rather than mindlessly following the path we're on), but this is a book that requires some concentration and some knowledge. There's a whole middle part, for instance, where the author discusses the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and he seems to assume a level of knowledge that I don't have.* So for now, I'm going to put this book down...but only due to my failings, not the author's.

In the meantime, here's a more thorough review, from the New York Times.

*As the years pass I become more furious about how my time was wasted in public schools for 12 years, and about how I wasted my own time in college for nearly six more. Really? Nearly 18 years of school and nobody could give me a quick rundown on Keynes and basic economic theories?


Part 1: God's Hotel.

Apologies for once again going off the radar for an extended period of time. Now that the weather is nicer it's harder to convince the Little CRs to stay in and watch Peg + Cat while I type away. I can read in the backyard while I ignore them, but it's hard to drag the laptop out there to work.

In honor of the short week, I'd like to spend the next few days on an absolutely fascinating book that you definitely should read. Yes, I am recommending this one, not just "suggesting" it, as they teach you in library school. Whatever. Screw you, library school. If I want to tell someone they should read a book from now on, I'm just going to own it and tell someone to read a book. Hilariously enough, this book was recommended to me by my sister, and even though my sister is one of my best friends and our tastes are nearly exactly the same, I still put off reading this book for a while because I am just THAT independent when it comes to my reading choices. So that's fine. Don't read this one right away just because I told you to. But read it sometime.

The book is God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, by Victoria Sweet. As its subtitle says, it's a book about one of the last "almshouses"--hospitals designed solely to care for the sick poor--in America: San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital.

Sweet is a doctor, but is one with more than just a passing interest in the history of medicine. While working at Laguna Honda, she also pursued a Ph.D. in the History of Medicine, with a special interest in the medical knowledge and practice of the Christian mystic and nun Hildegard of Bingen. In this memoir, which encompasses a large chunk of her life, she relates her experiences working at the hospital, what she learned in her Ph.D. studies, and her take on the landscape of health care has changed over the last couple of decades.

And that should be enough to pique your interest for now; if you've had any sort of dealings with the health care "system" over the past few years, I'd imagine you have some thoughts on it (and how it's been changing) yourself. More to come...


It's probably a good thing time is finite.

Because if I had infinite time, I would definitely have to read Jeremy Scahill's huge brick of a book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. However, because it clocks in at 642 pages (of which 521 are text; the rest is notes and index) and because I am chronically short on time, I will have to return it to the library after only making it to page 21. What I read, however, I liked:

"This is a story about how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy. It is also a story about the consequences of that decision for people in scores of countries across the globe and for the future of American democracy...

This book tells the story of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House." (p. xxiii.)

Now THAT, my friends, along with about one more page of text, is how you write an introduction (although here it is called "a note to the reader"). Short, meaty, to the point, with well-constructed sentences. And you don't have to read much farther to learn shocking things about what our government considers acceptable in terms of assassinations--of U.S. citizens, mind you.

As regards the subject matter itself, is this book bound to be depressing as hell? Well, sure. What isn't, these days? But it is also bound to be a cracking good read, and a fast one, for all its five hundred pages. As soon as we win the lottery and I can hire cleaning people and nannies, this is the first book I'm checking out (checking out? hell, BUYING, as long as I've won the lottery).


Skinny Review Week: How They Croaked

Title: How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous

What's it all about, briefly? This is a fun, short book (with lots of illustrations) about how a lot of history's most famous people died. The stories here describe the "awful ends of the awfully famous," including Julius Caesar, Elizabeth I, George Washington, Charles Darwin, and many others. This is a book meant for young readers, so the text is simple. I actually got it from my sister, who said her kids loved reading it. She also asked me for suggestions for other such "tweeny" nonfiction reads, which I never got back to her on. (Sorry about that, sis.) For one thing, normally I would have just gone to the shelf of my local library and browsed for her, but that's harder with the two kids; and for another, I have always believed that nonfiction for kids is best found along subject lines more so than author- or writing style-lines. By that I mean there aren't as many big "name" authors of YA or tween nonfiction that I am aware of, and that kids are usually pretty handy at finding nonfiction they want to read based on subjects they are interested in.*

Representative Quote: "On the morning of December 14, 1799, [George] Washington woke up boiling hot and gasping for air. Martha and Tobias Lear, his secretary, immediately sent for the doctor--which was harder than it sounds since they were seventy-five years shy of having a phone and a hundred years short of having a car parked out front. Sending for the doctor meant someone had to hop on a horse and gallop over dirt roads to Alexandria, eight miles away, where Dr. Craik lived." (p. 85.)

The Skinny: A fun read, for kids and adults alike. Always ask what your kids and nieces and nephews are reading--you might find something good for yourself. (Or something helpful for when your library patrons ask for juvenile nonfiction.)

*CRjr is a perfect example of this. Right now he is fascinated with flags, and has a Flags of the World book at home that has kept him occupied for, I'm not kidding, hours. He can't read but we've gone through and said a lot of the country names with him, so now he runs around the house saying "Mali! Guinea! Guinea-Bissau! Liberia!" It's beyond awesome.


Misled by a subtitle.

Weirdly enough, shortly after I got Across the Pond from the library, I also got Henry Hitchings's cultural history Sorry!: The English and Their Manners

I was very, very disappointed in it.

The problems began with the introduction. Which, at eight pages long, is about six pages longer than it needs to be*, since this is pretty much his whole thesis: "In the pages that follow, I examine English manners. I also examine Englishness." (p. 3.) Thereafter the narrative swings into (well, limps slowly along into, actually) a history of British manners, starting in medieval times and moving up through the twentieth century (and a bit beyond). It's not terribly written, and it actually has a nice notes section and an index, but it's on the crusty side of dry. It's also not so much a commentary on British manners as it is a HISTORY of British manners, which I don't think the subtitle was clear about.

I didn't finish this book, and I didn't find much to bookmark. I did mark this sentence as representative of the author's style: "If greeting people has become more relaxed (and thus in fact more awkward), the language of parting remains comparatively clear-cut, despite the rise of alternatives to a straightforward 'goodbye.' "(p. 48.) That's not even a very complicated sentence, but even re-reading it now my eye (and train of thought) tends to wander before I make it to the end.

*And, in all fairness, it is marked as chapter 1, although it functions as an introduction, laying out Hitchings's plan for the book. Hilariously, before I started writing this post, my memory of this first chapter was that it was at least 30 pages long. That's how long it felt.


What we look like to the other side.

I had such high hopes for Terry Eagleton's Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America.

In the past I have of course enjoyed books discussing British characteristics, like Sarah Lyall's The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British and A. A. Gill's The Angry Island: Hunting the English. So when I heard about this title, I thought, hey, this'll be fun. And since I don't really think of my identity being much tied to being "American," I also didn't think Eagleton's cultural critique would affect me very deeply.

Well, I was right in that it didn't really affect me very deeply. But I also didn't find it much fun. Eagleton, a "public intellectual" (and author of literary criticism books: this should have been a clue), was born in England, but lives in Ireland with his wife and family. In this title, he takes a "quirky journey through the language, geography, and national character of the United States" (thank you, jacket copy). His chapter headings include the following: "America the Beautiful," "The Affirmative Spirit," "The One and the Many," and "The Fine and the Good." Sound vague? Well, they are, rather. One of the problems I'm having writing about this book is that I can barely remember, a week after I read it, its organizing principle or really what each chapter was about. I think that was one of the failings of this title: in its sameness and its dry-ish, rather academic style, it never offered any sort of narrative build-up to a larger or more cohesive point. When a book that is less than 200 pages long feels like a slog, you know you have a problem.

I did not really enjoy the book as a whole, but that does not mean I didn't enjoy some of its constituent parts. I stuck a great many bookmarks in it, for passages like the following:

"Because of the all-powerful will, Americans are great believes in the fraudulent doctrine that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough. In no other country on earth does one hear this consoling lie chanted so often...One wonders why the nation does not put its mind to abolishing poverty, if all of its mental strivings are guaranteed to succeed. The United States has a larger proportion of its population in prison, higher levels of mental illness, greater rates of teen pregnancy, a lower level of child well-beig, and higher levels of poverty and social exclusion than most other developed nations. Perhaps this is because its people have not been exercising their wills in concert." (p. 96.)

Kinda bitchy? Sure. Pretty funny? Yes. Fairy accurate? I'd say so. And, often, even when Eagleton offers a small compliment, he makes sure it still arrives with a small barb:

"Generally speaking, American students are a delight to teach. Yet they are not always able to voice a coherent English sentence, even at graduate level." (p. 33.)

About the most damning thing I can say about a book is that blogging about it is just totally boring. It hurts me to say that about this book, because it wasn't really that bad, but I have been struggling with boredom writing this post. And I have a sneaking suspicion you've probably been a little bored reading it. As they would say in Great Britain: sorry* about that.

*Eagleton explains: "One knows one is back in the United Kingdom when everyone is constantly saying "sorry" for no reason whatsoever." (p. 17.)


Fiction Interlude: Still a solid Victorian mystery series.

I have always enjoyed Charles Finch's Charles Lenox mystery series, set in Victorian England. I'm not much of a mystery reader and the Victorian era isn't my favorite in British history, but I was originally drawn to the first book because of its beautiful cover, and each book in the series has shared the same style (to good effect, I think, they're always quite visually striking).

Every now and then I simply check my local library catalog for "Charles Finch" and see if he's come out with a new one, and last month I was not disappointed--I found the seventh book in the series, An Old Betrayal. In this installment, gentleman detective and esteemed Member of Parliament Charles Lenox finds himself ever more conflicted in his desire to be a good politician while also still pursuing his real love, which is crime detection. The story features a damsel in distress, two murders, and eventually, a dastardly plot involving high-level burglary and treason.

Mr. CR read the book too (as he has read most of the books in this series, when I bring them home) and found it a serviceable read. I enjoyed it, although I think Finch is starting to phone these books* in just a little bit. You really only notice when he is trying to work in some period detail or information and the best way he can find to do it is in parentheticals or asides.** And, sadly, what I liked best about the first book in the series was the relationship between Charles Lenox and his neighbor, Lady Jane Grey. Now that they're together the Lady Jane is not given much to do and their conversations don't seem as lively. I'll refrain from making any commentary on what that says about marriage in general.

But these are small quibbles. I still enjoyed the book, and I'm sure I'll read the next one in the series too.

 *And how could he not? He's been publishing one a year, and has written another contemporary novel (The Last Enchantments, just published) during the same time period.

**Yes, yes, I should give you an example of this. But I forgot to mark the proper pages with bookmarks. You'll just have to take my word on it.


Reading (rather than watching?) the Olympics.

I have always really enjoyed the Winter Olympics.

Don't ask me why. Perhaps because winter is my second-favorite season, after fall. Perhaps because I really do like watching figure skating. I was particularly excited about the Olympics this year, because CRjr really enjoyed watching a lot of the events in the Summer Olympics, which came along when he was 2 (he was particularly into the swimming races, for whatever reason), and I thought he might enjoy the Winter Olympics too. But, correct me if I'm wrong, it seems like all they're showing this year is snowboarding and this new "slopestyle" skiing and snowboarding stuff. And if there's anything more boring to watch than slopestyle, I challenge you to find it.*

So that got me thinking about reading the Olympics. The other day I saw this list, suggesting fiction titles related to the Olympics. I also remembered reading a book called The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, by Tony Perrotet. This is what I had to say about that book in my reference guide to nonfiction, The Real Story:

 "Perrottet describes the historical details of the original Greek Olympic games in muscular and fast-moving prose**, using such historical documents as a Handbook for a Sports Coach, a third century training manual, and numerous illustrations from drinking vessels and other primary sources to flesh out his account of the events at the original games, training regimes, customs, and spectator involvement.  The details can be quite earthy (such as his description of the thriving prostitution business that grew up around the festivities) and the author’s skill in weaving them into a comprehensive narrative is admirable."

If I remember correctly, I really enjoyed the book. You might too, even if you're bored by the real thing this year. Perhaps I'll re-read it until NBC decides to put a few different events on the air during prime time.

*I was up feeding CR3 at 3 a.m. this morning and actually got to see some luge. It was a real treat.

**Yeah, yeah, "muscular and fast-moving prose," I got carried away a little bit writing some of the annotations for that book. I was a lot younger when I wrote it!


And what an American life.

Wow, talk about living hard, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse: did everybody here know that author Jack London (of Call of the Wild fame) died at the age of 40? After packing more action and adventure into that short lifetime than most people do who live twice as long?

I read The Call of the Wild a million years ago, and remembered liking it, although I think that is the only piece of London's writing that I've ever read. My sister has referenced him before, though, so when I saw Earle Labor's new biography, Jack London: An American Life, in my library catalog, I placed it on hold, thinking I would lend it to her to read.

I made the (happy) mistake of reading the first few chapters of the book myself, and then I kept it for myself to read, rather than passing it along. Sorry, sis.

I couldn't stop reading this book simply because of the sheer momentum of London's life. From his illegitimacy to his hardscrabble childhood, his dedication to Socialist causes to his young adulthood filled with hard labor, his unstinting efforts to educate himself to his drive to become a published author, and his first unhappy marriage to a fulfilling second one, complete with a sailing voyage around the world, this story just never gets the chance to be dull. Labor's writing is straightforward and not nearly as flashy as its subject, and I periodically wished for some more juicy details*, but overall this was a quick read for how much ground the author had to cover.

A great biography, complete with notes, bibliography, and index, and a great read, about a truly unbelievable life. And a great book to read during this time of the year, trapped as we all feel by weather and the doldrums of January and February.**

*I forgot to place bookmarks at the places where I thought, huh, I'd like some more detail here. You'll just have to take my word on this one.

**Or am I the only one feeling this way?


All that glitters?

I was SUPER EXCITED to hear about Matthew Hart's new book, Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal.

Yes, all caps. I was just that excited. Why, you might ask? It's not like gold is all that scintillating a subject. I'm not even all that fond of gold--yellow gold, that is. (Yes, I'm an autumn, but I still prefer wearing silver and white gold. I'm a fashion daredevil.)

I was super excited because one of the books that started me on my love affair with nonfiction was Matthew Hart's title Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession. I loved that book and I'm not even sure why (I don't like diamonds either). One of these days I should re-read it; I just remember that it really grabbed my imagination and I enjoyed Hart's expertise on the subject, and his ability to make the discovery and refinement of diamonds so interesting.

In this book, Hart explores various aspects of this most precious of metals: its history (most often riddled with greed and violence), its role in the Spanish invasion of the Inca, its role in historical and current economies, and its discovery and mining in such locations as South Africa, the U.S., and China. It's an interesting book, and Hart still knows his way around prose:

"Spaniards came well equipped for the larceny of the sixteenth century. They reduced two empires, almost with a blow. They had the cavalier's weapon of mass destruction--Toledo steel. The swords were strong and flexible and the blades could take a razor edge. One good stroke took off a head. A horse and rider in full armor weighed three quarters of a ton. This massive equipage thundered along at twenty miles an hour, concentrating the whole weight on a sharpened steel point at the tip of a ten-foot lance. The Spanish could project such power through advanced technologies in sailing and navigation. And they had a pretext for the conquests they would make: winning souls for God." (p. 25.)

It was a good read. But it was not as good as I was hoping it would be. Part of this might be my distracted reading mind as of late--whenever Hart started discussing monetary policy (which he did a lot--it's a big part of gold as a subject), I just kind of shut down, as trying to understand most monetary policies is just beyond me. What I was looking for, I think, was more discussion on how gold is discovered and mined--if memory serves, Diamond offered a slightly more scientific viewpoint.

Not a bad read, really. But if I wasn't already a nonfiction lover, it wouldn't have been special enough to turn my head.


Men We Reaped: Read-Alikes

It struck me yesterday as I was posting about Jesmyn Ward's fantastic (and fantastically sad) memoir Men We Reaped: A Memoir, that it reminded me of several other books I've read. Librarians like the term "read-alikes" for books that they suggest which might be similar to other books you've read, but I confess I've never been that crazy about the term. Perhaps because I think it's sloppy terminology--I think book suggestions can also be made on the basis of similar or related subject matters (this is particularly important for nonfiction), and "read-alike" as a term doesn't always allow for that. But I digress. Following are some books you might want to consider in addition to or instead of Jesmyn Ward's memoir.

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

It's probably time for me to re-read this one but I honestly don't know if I have the heart. No kidding. I read it more than ten years ago and I still remember it. LeBlanc spent ten years getting to know families in the Bronx, and doesn't hold back on any details of the many struggles in their lives, including poverty, crime, abuse, and teen pregnancy (to name just a few). But it was a really eye-opening read, and a stunning work of reportage (and a just plain massive amount of work on the author's part).

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada.

Canada's memoir of growing up having to "prove himself" using ever-escalating violence is a gut-wrenching read, but trust me, you need to read it.

Warriors Don't Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, by Melba Pattillo Beals.

Beals was one of the original "Little Rock Nine," and her firsthand account of the bullshit she and her eight classmates had to go through to attend school at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, is really sad. As if high school isn't tough enough, imagine having to walk there followed by crowds of people yelling threats at you while you do.

These books focus mostly on race; if I can think of more memoirs that address the family relationships aspect of Men We Reaped, I'll add them later.


The Great Stacy Horn Imperfect Harmony Giveaway.

Have I mentioned how much I love Stacy Horn's writing?

Oh, yes, I have. Good. You should be reading Stacy Horn's nonfiction.

And her latest book, Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, is no exception. In it she discusses not only how joining an amateur/volunteer choir was beneficial to her mental well-being, but also what choral music and singing have meant to other people in other cultures, to the composers of the music, and to music lovers (even if they aren't singers themselves) everywhere.

Now, I'll be honest. Based on subject matter alone, I may not have picked this book up. This is strange, because I love singing and actively miss singing in a choir, which I have not done since college. But I have never been a great reader on the subject of music in general.* But because Stacy Horn wrote this one, of course I had to get it.**

I can't provide much of an actual "review," because I really flew through this book and just enjoyed it without studying it. Horn structures the book around choral pieces they have sung in her choir (the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York City), documenting how and when they were written and including personal asides about what the music has meant to her. She also illuminates the job of her choir's conductor, and all the work that goes into teaching music to singers and helping them perform it to the best of their abilities. In many ways this latter insight was my favorite part of the book; I never really thought about that aspect of choral singing before*** and I loved gaining the insight.

As with all Stacy Horn books you feel she has done her research, and, even though the book is part investigative writing and part history, she also throws in enough personal information and revelations to make it the best kind of memoir: engaging, without being self-obsessed. Consider how she describes an experience of singing harmony, as a soprano 2 (slightly lower in range than the soprano 1 part, which usually carries the melody):

"Then, only a minute later, my mood and my world changed. I hit my first correct soprano 2 note. I don't even know where it came from, but I got it right. It was a D. The soprano 1 to my right was singing the B flat above me. I love that glorious high B flat and I should have been apoplectic with envy about not getting to sing it myself, but instead I was pinned to that D, vibrating with a wondrous musical rapport I'd never felt before. I was feeling harmony. Not just singing it, but physically feeling it...Two notes and I went from a state of complete misery and lonesomeness to such an astonishing sense of communion it was like I'd never sung with the choir before." (p. 31.)

So yes, add this book to the list of Stacy Horn Books I Love. When I got to the end, I actually thought, oh, I wish it were LONGER, and I very, very, VERY rarely think that about books.

So, to get to the title of this post: I have a copy of Stacy Horn's book Imperfect Harmony that I would very much like to send to someone so they can enjoy it too. To enter, just comment on this post and make sure to leave your email address. Nothing complicated; I'll just have my lovely assistant Mr. CR draw a name out of a hat as per usual. You have until next Friday, Sep. 13, to comment. Good luck!

*The few times I have looked for books on the subject, they have been for my brother, who, although he doesn't really sing (at least, not that I've heard, unless you count theatrical operatic singing which he does when feeling rambunctious) or play an instrument, seems fascinated by music. And I'm glad he is, as he introduced me to Journey and Jackson Browne and a million more artists who make my soul go "ahhhhh...."

**I wrote to Stacy to ask how I could purchase an autographed copy, and she sent me one! So I went out and bought a copy for this giveaway because she deserves to sell many, many books.

***My choir director in high school was an evil, disgusting little man, and I only sang for one year in college, so when I think of choir conductors, I get the heebies just remembering him.


Men have always had some crazy ideas, evidently.

You know, every time I read about those organized types who keep their reading and TBR lists in GoodReads or spreadsheets or even on some sort of printed list, I think, oh brother. That sort of thing is just going to eat into my already precious reading time. But then books that I've requested come in at the library, I read them, I enjoy them, and I think, now where did I hear about this one? If I ever do start a reading notebook I think the main thing I'll track is how I found the books I request or buy (which I'd have to do the moment I request them, not when they come in, because my memory is terrible).

This was the case with Wendy Moore's historical biography How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate. I love biographies like this for two reasons: 1) I really, really enjoy reading about people who weren't necessarily famous (or who aren't famous anymore, at any rate), and 2) I really love reading histories that are at least part biography and biographies that are part history. This book was a very enjoyable example of its type, although I can't remember where I originally heard about it.*

Moore tells the story of one Thomas Day, an eighteenth-century Englishman known in his time for being a radical and the author of a popular children's book. But what Moore focuses on is his "wife-creating" activity; evidently he was somewhat of a picky bastard with high ideals for female perfection, so he decided to adopt a couple of young girls, raise them and teach them according to his social and educational principles (most of which were influenced by the controversial writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and then choose one of them to marry. And he didn't exactly keep his plan a secret; he knew a lot of influential Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, and many of them knew about this plan, and didn't seem to give it a second thought.

The eighteenth century sounds like a wild time, man.

Well, the plan did not exactly proceed as planned. You'll just have to read the book to see if Day trained up his one true (and truly subservient) love: 

"Day wanted a lifelong partner who would be just as clever, well read and witty as his brilliant male friends. He craved a lover with whom he could discourse and wrangle on politics, philosophy and literature as freely as he could in male company. He desired a companion who would be physically as tough and hardy as himself. In short he wanted a woman who would be more like a man. But he was only human--and male. So for all his apparently egalitarian views on education, Day wanted his future spouse happily to suppress her natural intelligence and subvert her acquired learning in deference to his views and desires. He wanted a wife who would be completely subservient to his wishes at all times. How then would he ever obtain the woman of his dreams?" (p. 7.)

My favorite part of the book, actually, was reading about the other women (the non-trained ones) who were engaged at some point to Day but who were smart enough to break it off before the wedding. Kudos to you, ladies!

*Maybe I requested it because I recognized the author's name? I'd read her earlier book Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and really enjoyed it.


A photography book to consider.

It had been a long time since I brought home any big photography books or collections from the library. Partially this was because we've been taking the little umbrella stroller for CRjr, or just walking to the library with our library bag, and photography books are heavy to lug around. But mostly it was because I'm not very good at tracking down neat photography books through serendipity (which is really how I find most of my reading).

So a while back RickLibrarian came to my rescue again but suggesting a book by a street photographer named Vivian Maier. I got the book (one of two collections that has been published; I'm still hoping to check out the other one), titled simply Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, and found it really beautiful.

LadiesIt's a collection of street photographs that Maier took in Chicago and New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. The photographs are gorgeous--I particularly liked the ones where people are looking directly at her camera--but what's really intriguing is the woman behind the camera. Evidently she worked as a nanny for forty years, and spent most of her time off taking photographs, but she never showed them to anyone. It was not until after she died, in 2009, that her boxes of negatives and her talent were "discovered."

It was just the right sort of book to page through and simply enjoy at night, when I was too tired to read and didn't want to watch TV. I wish the pictures had come with more explanation, but I suppose that Maier didn't leave much in the way of descriptions, and perhaps it would have been too hard to pinpoint the locations pictured in the photographs fifty years later. Perhaps that was just as well. Perhaps it was best just to let the pictures speak for themselves.


Downer Book Week: Nothing to Envy

The year it was published, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea was the rage of all the book reviewers and "Best Nonfiction of the Year" lists.

And now I know why.

Unfortunately, for contrary people like myself*, putting a book on any sort of "Best of..." list is a sure gambit in getting me NOT to read it. In a way, this is why I am always at a loss to understand the concepts of "book discoverability" and "social reading" as much as I should.

But with North Korea in the news a lot this past year, I've been thinking I should read the book on the subject, and because I am too lazy to read a real history of North Korea or the Korean War, I thought I would check this title out.

It's unbelievable. And I don't use that word lightly. I actually found it beyond belief in some parts. Demick begins her narrative with a fairly powerful image:

"If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea...It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans." (pp. 3-4.)

North Korea has been lacking in light since the early 1990s, Demick points out, which is when the economy there really crashed, taking its power stations with it (and leaving its infrastructure's copper wires to be stolen and sold by its starving citizens). And that is just the beginning of this story.

Because Western journalists are not typically allowed into North Korea, Demick largely had to wait for her story to come to her, in the form of six people who were born and raised there, but who then defected to South Korea or China. Reporting the book this way was a necessity, but it also makes it a very accessible read for those nonfiction readers most drawn to character portraits--two of her subjects conducted a secret, long-term love affair (which took years to get to the holding hands stage, and which was conducted in North Korea almost entirely under the cover of darkness, as the two would simply walk for miles together at night), while others were true believers in the North Korean system, or had families and children they had to leave when they defected. In short, these are very human stories.

You simply have to read this book to believe it. I am not a person who really believes that democracy is the only answer, or that America is the best country in the world (does one really have to be best, I always wonder?) but it is mind-boggling to me to imagine a society where your future is dictated largely by your caste (people belong to government-dictated social classes, and everyone knows your class), you can't make any sarcastic or negative remarks about the government at all, neighborhoods are watched over by community snitches ready to report any transgression, and your job and food are simply assigned to you (if and when there are jobs and food to be had).

It is simply surreal to believe that a country causing such a fuss with nuclear testing is the same country where "a survey of 250 North Korean households conducted in the summer of 2008 found that two thirds were supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside." (p. 289.) Makes me wonder how it is inside the country now, in 2013, nearly four years after this book was first published.

*Conversely, a review where someone rips into a book is usually a review that makes me want to read said book (just out of morbid curiosity).


Back in the reading saddle.

I realized the other day that I have a different book going in every room of the house (and one in my backpack), and it feels really, really...good. It feels like I am getting back to myself again, reading-wise.

So what's going on where? Details to follow, but in the bathroom I have a novel by a British author I've always enjoyed, in the bedroom is a book on how Generation Y is getting royally screwed, economically speaking (nice light bedtime reading, dontcha know), in my bag is a memoir that I'm not quite sure about but am going to stick with anyway, in the living room is a somewhat depressing book (book info toward the bottom of that post) that I've had to take a small pause from, and in the kitchen waits a book I started a few weeks back and really must get back to, because it is fascinating. Oh, and how could I forget a book about books, which, interestingly enough, has a chapter about being in the middle of too many books (and which roves around as I carry it from room to room and outside)? Add to that some books on gardening (every year in spring I read about gardening, rather than actually gardening) and some on toilet training (although, sadly, neither CRjr nor I are too interested), and you have a full reading slate.

It's lovely.


A surprise favorite.

Whenever I index books, it is always a real bonus when they turn out to be readable, fascinating books (they don't always, particularly when I'm indexing literary criticism). Particularly because when I index a book I end up reading it at least twice.

One of the titles I've most enjoyed indexing was one I did last year: Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey, by Walt Bachman. It's a history/biography of a man named Joseph Godfrey, who was born into slavery in Minnesota in the 1830s, and his role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Wait a second. Did you say born into slavery...in Minnesota? That's right, I did. And that's just one of the fascinating aspects of this book. Godfrey was born to a woman who was held in slavery by a U.S. Army officer in Minnesota--which, it turns out, was pretty common in the army. It was common enough, in fact, that a healthy (well, not so healthy, if you were one of the slaves) slave trade went on at all sorts of military posts in states that have traditionally been considered free territories.

But there's much more to the story. Joseph Godfrey eventually made his way into the Native American community in the area (details are a bit fuzzy on how he escaped indentured servitude, because of course there aren't many primary sources documenting his life early on) and married a Dakota woman. When a group of Dakota Indians banded together and decided to declare war on German-American Minnesota settlers in 1862 (I need to read more about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in general, since I'd never heard of it before), primary accounts refer to one massacre in particular: an ambush after which it was reported that "it was, as I am informed, Wabashaw's band, a negro leading them, who committed the murders." (p. xvii.) After the war, when many Dakotas and other Native Americans were taken into captivity and put on trial, it transpired that Joseph Godfrey had taken part in the massacres, but the question became: did he take part willingly, or was he forced to by his adopted community?

Add in some strangely compelling accounts of the rushed trials of the Dakotas, and a fascinating dash of information about Abraham Lincoln*, and the end result is a really, really great book. It's put out by a small independent publisher, the Pond Dakota Press (part of the Pond Dakota Heritage Society), but it should certainly be sought out and made a part of every public library collection (as well as more academic libraries, and of course, individuals looking for a good book to add to their TBR piles).**

*That guy was incredible. In the middle of everything else he had to do as president, he personally looked through trial transcripts (and assigned others to help him) to make sure the Dakota warriors sentenced to execution were not sentenced just because they happened to be in the general area.

**And of course, I can promise you that it is as extensively indexed as I could make it.