osprey_archer: (books)
I requested Susan Falls’ White Gold: Stories of Breast Milk Sharing from Netgalley because the topic fascinated me: informal breast milk sharing networks in the United States. That part of the book is interesting, and there’s also some information about breast milk traditions in other parts of the world that I found interesting too (did you know that in some Arab countries, unrelated children who are breastfed by the same woman become milk siblings?), but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the book as a whole.

There are two reasons for this. The first is simply that the book is not written in a style that appeals to me. I have a low tolerance for jargon and for intensive theorizing, and this book is all about jargon, and often uses the topic of breast milk sharing networks as a springboard to theorize about, say, the nature of agency. There is a place where Falls stops dead to consider whether she ought to consider whether breast milk itself has agency, before mercifully concluding that this question is beyond remit of her book.

I’m sure there are people who find this sort of thing fascinating, although personally I always feel that this sort of thing shows either a dangerously loose grasp of the theory of agency, or possibly that agency itself has become so loosely defined that it’s no longer a useful concept.

The other problem - which I think is an actual problem with the book, rather than a problem with me as a reader for this book - is that Falls is so deeply embedded in a particular perspective on social justice that she never notices her actual prejudices. She is stunned to discover that many breast milk donors in the American South are conservative white Christians - she mentions multiple times how much this surprised her - but it never seems to occur to her that she ought to interrogate her own surprise, or for that matter to investigate why breast milk donation would be an appealing prospect for many conservative white Christian women.

Surely these questions are at least as important and interesting as the possible agency of breast milk.
osprey_archer: (books)
”I’ve got another one. Another saying. ‘Planting seeds grows happiness.’”

C’est vrai.” Grandmere starts rocking again, her lips upturned.

I think but don’t say:
Sometimes bad happens.

Sayings come from observing the world. As true as the sun rises and sets, bad
is. That’s what I’ve learned.

Oil and salt destroy land. A bird’s wing gets broken. A turtle gets eaten by a gator.

Mami Wata couldn’t stop Membe being captured as a slave.

This quote does not entirely capture Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Bayou Magic - the book is more hopeful than this excerpt really expresses - but it does capture the rhythm and the cadence of the book, the darkness that hangs just beyond the light of the fireflies Maddy’s grandmother teaches her to summon. There is light and beauty and magic in this book, but these things can only hope to hold back the badness, to make it bearable, not to defeat it.

I was curious how Rhodes would combine a “girl meets magic” storyline with African-American history without either getting losing the wish-fulfillment aspects that make this sort of story fun, or else getting too wish-fulfillment-y which would require straight-up ignoring the ugly parts of history. In fact, she finds an excellent balance between the two - with room to spare for beautiful passages about the bayou and the mermaids, which both seem to get more magical through their association with each other.

This is the third book in a series (I’m not sure how tightly connected the series is; they might just be connected by the premise, “African-American heroines in Louisiana + magic”), and now I want to go back and read the first two.
osprey_archer: (books)
I liked Shaun Walker’s The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, but in a mild sort of way: I finished it over a week ago and it’s already fading out of my mind.

Two things that stuck with me. First, there’s a part where Walker is talking about Chechnya, and comments in amazement on the number of Chechens who serve in the Russian armed forced - even though Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation during World War II, even though Russia has leveled Grozny twice since the end of the Soviet Union.

When you put it that way it does sound surprising. But then, Native Americans serve in the US military in high numbers (I just learned this in Onigamiising), despite having a similarly harrowing history with that institution - and it struck me that perhaps these things seems baffling only if you look at them from a certain angle, if you assume that joining the military is a reflection of burning patriotism or at least some enthusiasm for a country, when really sometimes it’s just a job, an opportunity, maybe the only opportunity for someone living in a marginalized community.

No one thinks you have to have a burning love of McDonalds to start flipping burgers, after all.

The other thing that struck me is the total failure of empathy in the West vis-a-vis the collapse of the Soviet Union. My impression is that the American assumption was that everyone in the USSR would react about the same way as, say, Poland, where the Soviets were viewed as an invading power and their withdrawal caused celebration.

But outside of eastern Europe (which only came into the Soviet sphere post-World War II in any case), most people didn’t see it that way: they saw their own government and way of life collapsing, national purpose and identity crushed, with nothing to replace it but a kleptocratic oligarchy, and meanwhile the West looked on in bafflement and said “You’ve got democracy now! Why aren’t you rejoicing?”
osprey_archer: (books)
I quite enjoyed Triumph and Disaster, which is a collection of - historical sketches, I guess you could call them, by Stefan Zweig, each on the theme of a great turning point in history and the small "for want of a nail..." details that led events to turn out the way they did.

Waterloo - which Napoleon lost because Marshall Grouchy followed his orders and continued to pursue the Prussians, rather than realize that he must disobey and turn back. The fall of Constantinople - which might have been avoided, except that a postern gate had been forgotten, and left open in the wall. Wilson - giving in to pressure to compromise on a realistic peace treaty, rather than holding firm in his dedication to the Fourteen Points.

I do wonder a bit if this last sketch doesn't suffer from wishful thinking on Zweig's part. He was writing a Jewish writer in interwar Austria, and I think must have yearned achingly for the Treaty of Versailles to turn out differently - for Wilson's dreams of endless peace to come true, rather than World War I slipping ineluctable toward World War II. I am not at all sure I share his belief that Wilson could have created a more lasting peace if he had refused to compromise. Might he not simply have ended up sidelined? The wider structural forces against a lasting peace may simply have been too strong for any one man to overcome.

But even if I don't agree with his historical conclusions - and even in translation, which I know probably mutes his voice - Zweig's writing is beautiful. As Wilson sails away, he says, concluding his sketch, he "will not let his eyes look back on our unfortunate continent, which has been longing for peace and unity for thousands of years and has never achieved it. And once again the eternal vision of a humane world recedes into mist and into the distance."
osprey_archer: (Default)
Here's a lovely book I never would have found without Netgalley: Linda LeGarde Grover's Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year, which is a melange of many things: an exploration of Ojibwe (or Anishinaabeg) culture (Grover is a member of the tribe herself), a memoir, a family history, a meditation on how to life a good life - mino-bimaadiziwin - which involves "modesty, respect, thankfulness, generosity, and an awareness of one's ability and obligation to contribute to the well-being of others."

It's even occasionally a cookbook. I bookmarked the recipe for Blueberries and Dumplings. Will report back if I ever make it.

There are echoes of historical trauma in the book - particularly the Indian boarding school era, which lasted from 1879 to 1934, although, as Grover points out, the schools generally didn't close on the dot in 1934. That's just the date when the federal government decided the schools should be shut down, but many lingered on afterward.

Grover's father was sent to a boarding school, and although he didn't talk about it, Grover feels the contrast between his experience and her own memories of going to a regular day school, and sending her own daughters and grandchildren to school confident that they'll come home that night.

But on the whole it is a gentle book. The emphasis on family pleasures and the changing seasons is a relaxing contrast to the generally harrowing news right now.

Oh, and it's got another facet: craft guide. Grover reminisces about ironing autumn leaves between waxed paper (between old dish towels, so the wax didn't melt to the iron) and then hanging the leaves in the window "where the afternoon sun lit them to a stained-glass effect." Doesn't that sound gorgeous? I want to do that too.
osprey_archer: (books)
...kids are always part of grown-up problems. Even when the grown-ups think they aren’t.

So Raine tells her grandfather in Sheila O’Connor’s Sparrow Road, thus summing up the theme of the book: you can’t protect your kids from the problems in their lives just by refusing to talk about them. The kids will notice those problems on their own - in Raine’s case, the problem of her missing father, who disappeared when she was a baby.

I really liked this book. The themes may be heavy, but the story itself is a summer idyll. Explorations of the vast old house at Sparrow Road, once an orphanage and now an artist’s colony. Getting to know the artists who live there: reading poetry with fragile Lilian, going to town for ice cream with exuberant Josie who makes her own patchwork dresses, rowing on the lake with Diego of the booming laugh. Raine begins to discover her own talents, too: inspired by the attic dormitory, she begins to write an orphan story of her own.

It does have one peculiar quality. Although Sparrow Road was published in 2012 and it’s never explicitly stated that it’s set any time but now, it feels like it’s set at least twenty years before. No one has a cell phone, no one’s ever heard of the internet, and Raine was born during her mother’s “hippie years.” When did people last have hippie years? 1975?

I think this time warp effect gives Sparrow Road some of its timeless idyll quality, so this isn’t a criticism so much as an observation. And, now that I think of it, a lot of the best children’s book writers write books set in their own childhood era. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace both wrote explicitly autobiographical books series; Anne of Green Gables, IIRC, is also set during L. M. Montgomery’s childhood years. (Perhaps also Emily of New Moon? I know Pat of Silver Bush is intended to be set when it was written, which just makes it seem more old-fashioned.)

Maybe I should start plotting a 1990s magnum opus. The characters occasionally get on the internet long enough to watch Hamster Dance, except then Mom wants to use the phone, so they dash outside again to ride their bikes down to the park to… uh, play pogs maybe?

In any case. Sparrow Road! A neglected gem.
osprey_archer: (books)
Charles J. Sykes' How the Right Lost Its Mind is a view of the Trump takeover of the right from within - Sykes used to be a right-wing talk-radio host in Wisconsin. (He does not actually say so, but the timing makes it look like he ceased to be a radio host in part because of his outspoken opposition to Trump.) It's super weird to read a book where someone says nice things about Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin whom the Wisconsin friends on my Facebook feed loathe.

However, it's an interesting book, and not just because it is from a different viewpoint than I usually read. Sykes' analysis of the world of right-wing talk radio is interesting - and reminds me in a strange funhouse mirror way of some of the uglier parts of Tumblr discourse: both right-wing radio and left-wing Tumblr create echo chamber environments where there is no percentage in trying to be the voice of reason, because it opens you up to the charge of being a traitor. How dare you get soft on our enemies! They are demons! POSSIBLY LITERALLY.

Both sides considered this an apocalyptic election. Large swathes of right were every bit as terrified of a Clinton presidency as sensible progressives were of Trump's. Which I sort of knew, but it seemed, hmm, performative in a sense? - and it's clear from Sykes' comments that many people on the right saw the left's terror of Trump as performative in the same way: we've been labeling Republican candidates as fascists since George W. Bush if not before (I'm starting with Bush because he's the first one I remember), so when an actualfax fascist ran for office it sounded like we were just singing the same old scare-mongering song.

(I remember a number of articles by left-leaning people where the authors attempted to clarify that, okay, they'd called candidates fascists before, but this time they really meant it, which doubtless undercut their credibility among anyone who was not already inclined to agree - and Sykes does a good job outlining how the right-wing media has taught its consumers to distrust anything that comes from outside of a right-wing media bubble, to the extent that it becomes impossible to fact-check.)

I'm dwelling upon this because it's the part that struck me, as a left-leaning person, as a sort of action plan for the future - do not call people fascists unless you really mean it! - but it's not a big part of the book. He holds the right squarely responsible for capitulating to Trump. There are a number of excellently scathing turns of phrase in this book, but here's one that strikes me as a real mic drop - an excerpt from a television interview Sykes did with Megyn Kelly before the election:

"I've cautioned my fellow conservatives, you embrace Donald Trump, you embrace it all. You embrace every slur, every insult, every outrage, every falsehood. You're going to spend the next six months defending, rationalizing, evading all that. And afterwards, you come back to women, to minorities, to young people and say, that wasn't us. That's not what we're about. The reality is, if you support him to be president of the United States, that is who you are, and you own it."
osprey_archer: (books)
I read David Gushee's Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism before I went on my road trip, and it has suffered a bit from the time lag before I wrote this review. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but in retrospect the book's problems loom larger in my mind, although to be fair part of this is simply that it is not the book I was hoping for. I wanted more exploration of wider trends and on-the-ground conflicts within American evangelicalism, but it's really more a memoir about Gushee's life and career and only touches on those conflicts insofar as they affected that.

Also, Gushee is careful not to say anything too inflammatory about anyone. I also would hesitate to write a juicy tell-all memoir about my colleagues - just imagine how awkward that would make staff meetings - so I can't really fault him, but the book would be more interesting with more nitty-gritty detail about the key players and conflicts in the drama.

It's like reading someone vagueblogging a fandom wank. Name some names!
osprey_archer: (books)
I enjoyed Lucy Worsley's Jane Austen at Home so much that, rather than take advantage of DC's multitude of museums (they've got a postal service museum, you guys! A MUSEUM ABOUT MAIL), I spent a large proportion of my day in DC reading while ensconced in a cafe with a pot of Earl Gray tea at one hand and a chocolate croissant in the other.

It's just a very pleasant book. It's probably not the deepest study of Austen ever (I could have done with a bit more about the books themselves, although it is probably unfair to wish a biography were literary criticism), but it's light and engaging. And Worsley has a good eye for when Austen is being sarcastic in her letters, which (given that Austen seems to be have been sarcastic just about every other sentence) seems to trip people up.

Also, in Lyme Regis, Worsley actually stayed in the selfsame lodgings that Austen inhabited all those years ago. I'm so impressed by the way she melds the experience of being there now with what we know of those places in the past - so you get a very powerful evocation of what it might have been like ("powerfully evocative" does not always mean "accurate," I know, but it's nonetheless a pleasure to read.)

And she's so unobtrusive about the fact that she stayed in THE VERY ROOMS were Jane Austen stayed. I would be screaming it from the rooftops, and probably bore my readers with a lengthy description of the scones at the charming little seaside teashop on the beach - but Worsley just mentions it, I think in part to let her fellow Janeites know that staying in the very rooms hallowed by Jane herself is an option (I'm certainly intrigued!), and then gets swiftly back to her real subject: Jane.

I do have a couple reservations. One is that Worsley seems sometimes almost too insistent on the importance of Austen's relationships with other women - like admitting that Austen also had strong relationships with a few men (her father, one or two of her brothers) would undermine this - but I suspect this is a reaction against earlier biographies that did overemphasize her connections with men because of the cultural assumptions that relationships with men are always more important than relationships with women.

The other is that Worsley suggests that Austen might have been clinically depressed, which I found interesting but not quite convincing - although to be fair, I may just need more time to get used to it. I realize that one perhaps should not assume to much about an author's inner life based on their work, but Jane Austen through her novels has always struck me as one of the most balanced and level-headed and mentally healthy writers ever - to the point of being quite unsympathetic to the Mariannes of the world.

It certainly is a possible explanation for Austen's fallow period in Bath. And yes, the irritability and sadness and sense of helplessness in some of her letters might be symptoms too.

But on the other hand, who is not occasionally irritable and sad? And how can we call a sense of helplessness a symptom of anything when it was such a genuine reflection of her reality? Worsley makes it very clear that she was pretty much at the mercy of her male relatives - who fortunately seem to have been pretty decent chaps - but nonetheless they decided where she lived and who she'd live with (one brother saddled his female relations with his new bride) and how much money they'd have.

And when, through her writing, she does gain some financial independence, she pursues it gleefully, driving hard bargains with her publisher when her brother (who had been acting as her agent) becomes too ill to do so. The sense of helplessness disappears when she's no longer actually helplessness.
osprey_archer: (books)
I criticized Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder when I first read it, but I must say it has been a productive book for me in leading me to new and interesting authors: first to E. M. Delafield, who isn't even a murder mystery author but nonetheless got caught up with those who were (now that sounds like the plot of a detective story in itself), and now with George Bellairs' Death of a Busybody.

I must say I feel that E. M. Delafield was the more successful find. Bellairs, eh; Death of a Busybody is a perfectly adequate English country village mystery, but I don't feel the urge to search out any more books by him.

And his detective, Inspector Littlejohn, has given me a new appreciation for the depth Ngaio Marsh gave to her Inspector Alleyn. Now you may object that Inspector Alleyn is not exactly over-endowed with personality himself, which may be accurate when compared to the eccentricities of for instance a Poirot -

Speaking of Poirot, I saw Wonder Woman recently and the new Orient Express was one of the previews and maybe I just imprinted too hard on David Suchet, IDK, but I'm not sure I approve of this new Poirot. Do we need a new Poirot? Why all the remakes all the time???

ANYWAY. The point I intended to get to is that Inspector Littlejohn has no discernible personality at all. While I prefer this detective's personal lives to remain second fiddle to their mysteries, lest they throttle their books like strangler figs, it turns out that there is indeed such a thing as too little personality in a detective, too. Littlejohn is little more than a conduit for exposition, and mostly indistinguishable from the other characters who act as conduits of exposition in this book, which makes the thing sadly forgettable even though I enjoyed it in a mild way as I read it.
osprey_archer: (books)
I looooooooved Dori Jones Yang's The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang with such an all-consuming long that when, seven or eight years after I read it, I came to create a livejournal, I worked an allusion to the main character into the subtitle: Gina's name is pronounced Jinna in Chinese.

Never mind that unlike Jinna I was not an elective mute or Chinese or an immigrant schoolchild; we both made up long unending stories in our heads, and that was enough for me to identify till the cows come home.

So of course when Netgalley had Yang's new book, The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball, I snapped it up. I didn't expect it to appeal to me in quite the same soul-grabbing way, and it doesn't; our hero Leon - this is the Anglicized version of his name Woo Ka-Leong - is far more interested in trains and baseball than making up stories.

But it's still fun - a peek at an interesting period of history. Leon and his brother Ka-Sun (Anglicized to Carson) are part of the Chinese Educational Mission, an actual historical occurrence when the Chinese government sent 120 boys to the US to learn about American technology. Leon and his love of trains are a godsend for the program.

His older brother, on the other hand, is kind of a nightmare. All he ever wanted was to be a classical Chinese scholar, at which he is brilliant; but instead he's sent to America, where he discovers that he's way less brilliant at learning English, and the one-two punch to his identity is too much and he plunges into a depressive homesick spiral that he mostly takes out on poor Leon.

Eventuallyspoiler )

This part of the book is rather dark. However, it's balanced well by Leon's growing love of baseball and his friendships with his teammates (particularly another member of the Chinese Educational Mission, who arrived in the country a couple years before Leon and helps him understand the peculiarities of Americans). And all the boys in the mission get to go the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia! How cool is that? Okay, maybe it's only super cool if you share my obsession with World's Fairs, but I thought it was the bee's knees.
osprey_archer: (books)
Although I enjoyed Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation of Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, my strongest reaction to it was the desire to read something by Sofia’s sister Nadezhda, the more famous of the two literary sisters (yes, Favorov does draw the inevitable Bronte comparison). City Folk and Country Folk has some excellent moments, but it doesn’t really come together as a story; it ends abruptly with all the ends left flapping. I can see why it’s been largely forgotten.

But for all that, I enjoyed reading it. The plotting might leave something to be desired but the characterization is quite good. I particularly enjoyed Ovcharov, the pseudo-liberal semi-intellectual who practically invented mansplaining; he’s such a well-observed example of the type.

He grows infatuated with young Olenka, but he is so convinced of his own intellectual and monetary superiority that he can’t even imagine that’s what he’s feeling, and assumes that of course it must be Olenka who is in love with him. How could she help it, a country girl like that, meeting a truly sophisticated man of the world for the first time! He is filled with sentimental pity for her predicament and decides it is positively his duty to flirt with her, and thereby open new vistas of worldly experience to her.

In fact, Olenka finds him terrifically boring and sets him bodily on the other side of the carriage when he attempts to make advances. This is always enjoyable.

And in fact I quite enjoyed Olenka as a whole. Unlike many nineteenth century heroines, she has no pretensions to being a paragon of anything. She’s pretty enough for all ordinary purposes, not particularly patient when she feels that people are being silly (and she often feels people are being silly), not particularly fond of reading, capable of brewing an excellent kvass - young, exuberant, occasionally thoughtless, sometimes judgmental, truly fond of her mother beneath her impatience with her mother’s dithering. She felt very real and seventeen.
osprey_archer: (books)
Elizabeth Warren’s The Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class was just as difficult as I feared, emotionally speaking. It is infuriating to read about bankers swindling people left and right and then having the audacity to whine that the slap-on-the-wrist consequences they got were too much regulation - and just as infuriating to read about the Obama administration’s failure to stick any actual consequences to the banks. If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big to fucking exist! Bust some goddamn trusts, dude!

Which actually went some way to explaining to me one facet of Donald Trump’s appeal: the Democrats flubbed their chance to fix things back in 2008. Of course some people are going to turn hopefully to the Republicans, desperate to believe Trump as he blithely lies about his plans to “drain the swamp,” simply because the Republicans are the only other choice in American politics.

Emotional difficulties aside, it’s a good overview of everything that has gone wrong with the US, economically speaking, since the 1980s. And it’s not all grimness: Warren is deliciously sarcastic. Like this bit, describing politicians ignoring the signs of impending economic crash: “I guess it’s hard to hear when your ears are stuffed with money.”

Or this: “When we fail to invest in infrastructure, it’s as if everyone in America is joining hands and saying, ‘Let’s get poor together!’”

Or this - I think this might be my favorite - “Donald Trump is the President Most People Didn’t Want,” which I think is what we ought to call him from now on, not least because saves us from repeating his name ad nauseum and I think he gets a tiny flare of happiness every time it is uttered, no matter what the context.
osprey_archer: (books)
If you want to despair about something, then Robert A. Forde’s Bad (Forensic) Psychology: How Psychology Left Science Behind is definitely worth a look. This book is an indictment not just of psychology as practiced in the British prison system, but of every comforting lie you ever believed about the predictive abilities of experts (all experts, though Forde is talking specifically about psychologists for most of the book): “it turns out that professionals of all levels of training and experience predict about as well as lay people,” Forde informs us. “There is abundant and increasing evidence that psychologists’ judgments are subject to exactly the same weaknesses as everyone else’s.” His book is a methodical examination of just how weak human judgment often is.

Just look at the clusterfuck that passes for treatment in prisons. One-size-fits-all treatment plans got rolled out on a nationwide scale with little or no prior testing for efficacy, only for it to turn out - when these programs are tested with adequate sample sizes - that these treatments either have no effect on recidivism, or actually make it worse.

And this is what passes for mental health care in prisons. There’s very little attempt to get actual mental healthcare to prisoners with real mental health problems (substance abuse is the big one; Forde also notes that “violence rates amongst those suffering from depression are appreciably higher than in the general population,” although “the vast majority of people with mental disorders do not commit crimes of violence, or any other kind.”). The one-size-fits-all programs are genuinely seen as universally applicable and therefore are supposed to fix the problems underlying substance abuse, which is impulse control, apparently.

(I’m not sure if the proponents of this theory also believe that better impulse control will cure depression, or if depression just doesn’t fit into their understanding of How Crime Works and so they ignore it.)

And then there’s the tragicomedy of the parole board hearing. Did you know that parole boards are more likely to grant parole after lunch than right before? There are studies to this effect. The considered opinion of the parole board is affected just as much by whether the members splurged on a sandwich platter from the deli down the street as by anything in the case files.

In fact, human judgment in general just seems to mess up parole decisions. Statistics have a 70% success rate at predicting recidivism among released criminals. In an attempt to make this prediction more accurate, parole boards often ask prison psychologists for their clinical judgment, which seems reasonable enough - except that “Clinical judgment has long been known to predict reconviction at approximately the chance level, like tossing a coin.”

The question of course arises - if treatment programs (in their current form) and parole hearings are useless, why do they continue? It’s partly inertia - these things have all been set into motion and it’s hard to stop them. In the case of treatment programs, there’s also a profit motive: the people who created the popular treatment programs are making bank, and the people who run them have a vested interest in seeing that they continue to prosper. (This is, I should add, not evidence of a sinister conspiracy, but evidence of the fact that humans are consistently blind to how much our material interests influence our judgment.)

And there’s just the plain fact that we want to do something about crime. Having a parole board seems more proactive than making parole decisions by consulting an actuarial chart of recidivism risks. Treatment programs seem more humane than simply “waiting for prisoners to get older and less impulsive,” as a judge put it to Forde when discussing Forde’s views on parole hearings - even though that’s pretty much what prisons are: holding pens in which people get older and less impulsive until they have probably aged out of their desire to batten on the general public.

Although only probably. We will never be able to predict recidivism rates with 100% accuracy. In fact, 70% seems about as high as it will go, barring some great new statistical discovery. We will have to let go of our hope for a controllable world and accept our own comparative powerlessness.
osprey_archer: (books)
I read Chris Guillebeau's book Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days in the hopes that reading about other people making money on the side from their regular job would inspire me to get to work on my novellas again, and indeed it seems to have worked - at any rate I'm working again on a book that I set aside... a while ago... probably best not to compute exactly how long.

(I've actually got a number - again, probably best not to compute exactly how many - of novellas that I abandoned around 10,000 words. Which is a lot of words! I'm a third of the way to complete novella-dom already! Just think how much I could accomplish if I set myself to finishing them.)

Although honestly all these abandoned projects show mostly that I'm not quite the target audience for this book, which seems to be aimed at go-getters with boundless energy who can not only think of money-making ideas but follow them through the fruition. I have a couple of friends who fit this description (one of them is already running a side business, in fact) and would definitely consider giving them a copy of this book for any useful hints & tips they might glean out of it, but for the less go-getting among us, it's a slightly exhausting read. How do these people find the energy?
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I have reluctantly concluded that actual diaries, unlike fictionalized diaries, tend to be boring and I ought to stop reading them unless I have some absolutely urgent need to read a primary source about that thing. Case in point: I finally finished slogging through An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp, which is about an English governess’s experience working in Brussels during the German occupation in World War I, and as such sounds like it ought to be fascinatin.

And there are certainly interesting nuggets of information and if one wants to learn about life in occupied Belgium, this is probably a good source. (I bookmarked a few bits for a story I’ve been tinkering at in my head, set just after the end of World War I.) But just reading through it with no particular aim - gosh, it’s so repetitive. And I don’t think this is particularly Thorp’s fault, either, I think diary keepers just tend to be repetitive, and certainly they rarely seem to have vibrant character sketches or ongoing story arcs like novels-in-the-form-of-a-diary too.

Although Anne Frank’s diary does rather, so perhaps after all some of the blame ought to be laid at Thorp’s feet. Maybe she is just a boring diarist. But then the boring ones do seem to outnumber the ones who write intense thoughtful character sketches, so my resolve to mostly steer clear of diaries still ought to hold me in good stead.
osprey_archer: (books)
Just about the only good thing about Francis O’Gorman’s Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia is that it reminded me of Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which I then reread with much pleasure and profit. I even highlighted a quote from Brinkmann that I think sums up what O’Gorman wanted to say in his own book: “The accelerating culture is at one and the same time preoccupied by the moment and the future, but it is definitely not particularly bothered about the past.”

Unfortunately O’Gorman never does say it as clearly or succinctly as that. He is often irritatingly non-specific, particularly when he’s being nostalgic. He thinks we ought to have more respect for the past, and eventually it emerges that what he means is that we ought to look at the past as a potential source of value and inspiration - as the ancient Greeks and Romans looked at Homeric epic, evidently, which may well be true but I find it hard to trust O’Gorman - rather than seeing the past as a cesspool of pure misery and approaching historical analysis as “a search for what are classified as another person’s hidden assumptions that are not ethically acceptable.”

I ought to be an easy sell on this argument: I quit grad school in part because I found this sort of analysis so annoying. If you’ve already decided what you’re going to find once you’ve unpacked all your sources (moral depravity and dehumanizing assumptions usually), why bother spending all that time analyzing it?

And I still can’t believe that so many extremely smart people can spend so much of their time dissecting the flaws in historical reform movements - spoiler alert: they always seem to reify the status quo somehow - without ever stopping to think “Gosh, do you think my reform-minded work might inadvertently reify the status quo too?”

But O’Gorman is remarkably coy about what valuable lessons he thinks we ought to learn from the past. Brinkmann wrote a whole book about valuable lessons we could learn from the ancient Stoics; surely O’Gorman ought to be able to pony up with at least one insight. But no, it’s all unmoored theorizing about the Value of the Past, the sort of word fog that slips out of your head almost as soon as you read it. Truly an aptly named book.
osprey_archer: (books)
I was under the impression that the world, or at least the Bloomsbury Group corner of it, broke in two on or about some date in 1910 (and there is something extremely Bloomsbury about the willingness to generalize from a break with social mores in one's tiny social group to a sea change in the ENTIRE WORLD) - but either I am misremembering utterly, or Bill Goldstein is riffing off this quote in the title of his book The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature. Which is about 1922.

I am not sure that this book wholly lives up to its title; most of these authors neither published nor completed anything particularly stunning in 1922. In fact, now that I think about it, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is the only one that really counts. Woolf & Lawrence had their best work ahead and E. M. Forster - I actually don't know the critical opinions of E. M. Forster's work; is A Passage to India considered his best? In any case he didn't finish it till 1923.

So don't read this book for the supposed thesis, because it's bunk. 1922 is not a sea change in literature, just a convenient way to arrange an otherwise unwieldy amount of material about four quite disparate people.

However, the book doesn't lean much on this supposed thesis - it really does seem more like a convenient organizational tool than anything else - so it might be worth reading if you're interested in any of the four writers aforementioned.

Or if you just want to read a book that could be entitled Moderate Neurosis: A Writer's Life, this is the book for you. Nervous breakdowns all over the place! Lots of gazing into space while sitting at a desk before a half-completed manuscript! T. S. Eliot spends six months not getting the manuscript of The Waste Land typed, even though publishers are literally begging for it (even though none of them have read it yet! Because it's still in manuscript! WHAT IF IT WAS TERRIBLE, YOU GUYS?) and that is the only thing standing between him and publication, acclaim, and a much-needed infusion of cash.

Admittedly at the time Eliot was in the process of getting his own magazine off the ground and perhaps having second thoughts about having his poem published at a magazine that would be a rival, which leads one to suspect that his dilatoriness was at least as much a business strategy as neurosis.

His publishers are so heroically patient with him, too. When he finally gets them the poem - still handwritten! - they rush it into print in the autumn issue and give him a big fancy prize for it, never mind that this will give his magazine (which is a rival to their magazine) an enormous boost in prestige.

Actually I get this feeling about a lot of publishers of yesteryear: they're often heroically patient with their authors, even when said authors don't sell that well. (Lawrence's sales aren't good at all, but his publisher puts out book after book. Someday he will find his public!) It was a different time.
osprey_archer: (books)
I’ve been putting off reviewing Lucinda Miller’s Anything But Simple because I really liked the book, which often makes it hard to write a review - especially for a book like this where my main reaction was not so much literary as personal, in the sense that as I read it I thought “WE MIGHT BE BRAIN TWINS. WE SHOULD BE FRIENDS.”

This is not the reaction I expected to have to a memoir written by a young Mennonite woman. It’s actually kind of heart-warming to feel that similarity despite the outward differences in our lives.

This struck me particularly during the part of the book about Miller’s childhood, when she describes feeling shy and lonely and different for no particular reason - it’s not that her parents were abusive or the other kids bullied her or there was anything really wrong, she just felt cut off from other people.

Actually this crops up all the time in memoirs; I’m starting to wonder if maybe just everyone feels lonely and different when they’re eight. Maybe that’s actually the common experience of childhood: we are all alike in feeling freakish. Or perhaps just the common experience for writers/creative people, which is why it’s represented in so many memoirs? Perhaps that sense of being unable to communicate is what compels creative types to create: it’s an attempt to reach across that barrier.

In any case, Miller’s descriptions of this feeling are especially evocative, which more than makes up for the fact that the book doesn’t get as deep into the nitty-gritty of modern Mennonites as I expected - the promise of Mennonites being the reason I picked the book up in the first place. The book’s meditations on faith are oriented, hmm, personally rather than anthropologically, if you will? So in one sense you don’t learn much about the Mennonites (their history, their theology, their rules of dress) - but it shows you how the world looks from a Mennonite view.

There's also, fair warning, brief descriptions of animal cruelty from Miller's father's boyhood: he had a calling to be a preacher and hated it and attempted to be too bad for God to save: quarreling with his parents, beating up his mother, torturing small animals, etc...

But then he got saved, settled down, got married, became a good husband and father, and lo! was elected preacher by the congregation, just as he always knew he would be. If someone tried to sell me this story in a novel I would scoff, which just goes to show, I suppose, that there truly are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.
osprey_archer: (books)
From the title, one might imagine Jeremy McCarter’s Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals is about the struggles of today - and indeed McCarter does not shy away from this parallel, drawing it explicitly in both the introduction and the conclusion. He wisely ignores it in the body of the book itself, preferring to focus on his own time period: the years before, during, and just after America’s involvement in World War I.

These are my home stomping grounds (historically speaking) and I had a lovely time reading this book. It was a delightful chance to revisit historical figures who feel like old friends: in particular, I’ve always had a fondness for Randolph Bourne, who seems to have been just about the only major intellectual figure in the US who didn’t get swept away by patriotism after war was declared: “You may remember that you lost your head in 1917,” the editors of The Nation reflect ruefully, “and you are intellectually ashamed; but you take comfort from the assurance that practically everyone else did also. Randolph Bourne did not lose his head.”

(Bourne, incidentally, died just after the war; I thought he starved to death because no one would buy his prophetic articles, and he had been abandoned by all his friends, and wasted away in a garret etc. etc., - which is all very melodramatically satisfying, but not in the least true so I don’t know where I got it. He was publishing in The New Republic right up to the end, and died - not alone and abandoned, but in the arms of his fiancee - of the Spanish flu.)

And I also learned about figures new to me, in particular Alice Pual, the militant suffragist. Often when I learn about a new female figure from history I’m outraged that I didn’t know about her before, but in Paul’s case she honestly comes across as pretty ineffectual - she is forever doing things like trying to organize women (in the states where women already had voting rights) to vote against the anti-suffrage Democrats, and then declaring that her campaign has been victorious even though ten of those twelve states… voted Democrat. THAT’S NOT WHAT VICTORY LOOKS LIKE, PAUL.

So I can see why she’s slipped through the cracks. But she’s still interesting to read about: it takes some chutzpah to burn the President in effigy in front of the White House even in years when the nation isn’t swept up in hysterical war-fever, as it was when Paul attempted it. (The suffragists did not succeed in burning the effigy: outraged bystanders intervened, causing a riot.)

The book weaves together the stories of five figures - Walter Lippmann, John Reed, and Max Eastman, as well as the aforementioned Paul and Bourne. But it also tells, almost as a side note, the tale of the downfall of Woodrow Wilson, who seems to have an unerring genius for compromising when he shouldn’t, and refusing to compromise when he really should: he’s very consistently wrong about it. He’s a tragic figure in the classic sense of the word: a would-be hero utterly undone by his own flaws.


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