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?
osprey_archer: (books)
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.
osprey_archer: (Default)
Tom Braden’s Eight Is Enough is a big-happy-family memoir in the tradition of Cheaper by the Dozen, and although alas nothing can be quite as delightful as Cheaper by the Dozen (my mother read it to me when I was eight so I am of course biased; but still, the Gilbreths had a frickin’ lighthouse, the Braden’s oceanside regular house just can’t compete), Eight Is Enough is nonetheless gently charming in much the same vein.

It is, as the title suggests, about Tom Braden’s eight children, and also an interesting glimpse of the liberal view of society in the 1970s. (The Bradens were family friends of the Kennedys, and the book mentions a number of other names I suspect I would recognize if I knew the seventies better.) Braden has made a fragile peace with marijuana but retains a horror of harder drugs, particularly misused prescription medications; he is uneasy about the way that the Pill has separated sex and marriage, but nonetheless tries not to be an interfering old fuddy-duddy with his children.

And he’s already, in the early 1970s, complaining that college costs have skyrocketed beyond the point where hard-working youths can foot their own college bills through part-time work. It’s rather sad to realize that this problem has been recognized for over forty years and has only gotten worse.

I think we damned ourselves to ever-rising college costs for ever-decreasing returns the moment we made it a social priority to send as many kids as possible to college. We’ve built a house of cards on the belief that the correlation between college degrees and middle-class financial stability is innate when in fact it came about because college degrees were comparatively rare.
osprey_archer: (nature)
“Enjoy” is not quite the right word for what I felt about Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. Or, rather, I did straightforwardly enjoy the chapters that were about the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone, and the epic exciting pack dramas, and all the good ecological effects of that reintroduction: less coyotes, which meant more rodents, which meant more birds of prey; less elk, which meant more trees, which meant less erosion.

But I did not enjoy the chapters about the political ramifications of that reintroduction. It’s not that they were out of place or detracted from the book - they’re an important part of the story Blakeslee is telling - but reading about it just made me so angry. Blakeslee is doing his darndest to be fair, but nonetheless the basic blinkered selfishness of the opponents of wolf reintroduction comes through.

They are so concerned about the life stock losses the wolves will cause. Never mind that the winter causes many times that number of losses; they can’t legislate against the winter. Although they definitely would if they could, and damn the ecological effects. And they can’t bear the fact that they’re going to have competition for the elk now.

One little girl (little enough that she’s clearly been put up to it by her parents) pickets with a sign that reads “Will there be elk when I grow up?”, and, uh, yes, Virginia, there will be elk when you grow up. Unless of course humans kill them off, because we are the only species with a proven track record at that sort of thing, which is why the wolves needed to be reintroduced into their own natural habitat in the first place. The wolves and the elk coexisted for thousands of goddamn years before we slaughtered the wolves.

The hypocrisy of humans complaining about the destructiveness of any animal ever is completely breathtaking, given that we are the most destructive species on earth by several orders of magnitude. At least if we do stumble into an apocalypse and kill ourselves off, all the other animals will finally have a fighting chance - assuming of course that we don’t take them all down with us.
osprey_archer: (books)
I just finished Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a fascinating book about Chris McCandless, a young man from an upper-middle class family who gave away his fortune, spent two years hitchhiking up and down through North America, then hiked into the Alaskan wilderness and lived off the land (and a ten-pound bag of rice) for a hundred days before dying of starvation/poisoning from eating the seeds of a wild potato plant.

The animating tension in the book lies between the two interpretations of Chris McCandless and his death: was he an admirable spiritual seeker or an arrogant young idiot? Krakauer leans toward the former - I suspect the book would be unreadable if he didn’t; who wants to read two hundred pages of “I can’t believe this guy was so stupid!”? - but he gives the latter view its due, as in this passage about McCandless’s mother:

“As she studies the pictures [of Chris’s final days], she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow.”

Coming as part of a book that is, among other things, an apologia for high-risk activities (Krakauer himself is a mountain-climber) this passage has considerable power.

I’m temperamentally inclined toward the “arrogant young idiot” view: the amount of damage he caused his family (especially his sister, whom he claimed to adore) by disappearing and dying undermine the supposedly spiritual qualities of his journey. But Krakauer makes a good case for the other side, strong enough that I’m - not converted; but left ambivalent toward McCandless; maybe there’s something in his quest, after all.

(Although if there is something in McCandless’s quest, it probably still would have been there if he had sent his family the occasional postcard rather than dropping entirely out of their lives and thereby sentencing them to two years of constant grinding anxiety as they wondered where he was and if he was well.)

It helps Krakauer’s case that so many of the people who think McCandless was a fool seem to feel a sort of relish for his death, like they enjoy seeing people suffer and die for the capital crime of being unprepared. “Maybe McCandless reminds them a little too much of their former selves,” one of Krakauer’s outdoorsy friends muses, which I think is part of it, and perhaps there’s also an element of It couldn’t happen to me. If McCandless died because he was an idiot, then wilderness trekkers who take safety precautions like bringing along a topo map needn’t worry that misadventure will take them, too.

No matter what lies behind it, there’s something creepy and off-putting about that relish. Surely it’s possible to feel that his death is sad, even tragic, even if you think his quest is foolish and he should have been more prepared. Take the topo map, Chris, come on!
osprey_archer: (books)
And now for something completely different: a review of a memoir that I actually quite liked! Rebecca Stott's In the Days of Rain is half memoir, half family history of her family's four generations of involvement with the Exclusive Brethren, who are sort of like the Plymouth Brethren except they believe the Plymouth Brethren are not hardcore enough and in fact are especially damned for getting so close to seeing the light and then not going all the way.

This is a background guaranteed to add pep to any memoir, and Stott combines it with a thoughtful and lucid writing style and an excellent figure for a central character: her father, brilliant, charismatic, and flawed, the very definition of larger-than-life. I am glad he's not my father, but he's fascinating to read about.

The Exclusive Brethren seem to have been a fairly normal conservative sect until the sixties, when a new leader harangued his way to power by accusing everyone else of a lack of reforming zeal, at which point the Exclusive Brethren basically began to run like small-scale version of the Soviet state in the 1930s. If a sect member was suspected of breaking the rules, the Brethren would send a pair of churchmen in good standing to interrogate that person at their house, and if they did not prove repentant on the first try, to lock them away in their own house, not allowed to speak even to their family members, but only to the interrogating brothers until they were deemed sufficiently sorry. This led to a rash of excommunications and suicides.

Stott was still a child when her parents got fed up and left the group during a schism, so her viewpoint of this is inevitably rather limited. However, as Stott points out, people like her father who were involved were often too ashamed to speak of it. He was still trying to write his memoir when he died, but he just could not get past the new leader's abrupt ascent to power to the part where he himself became complicit in the system.

The abruptness of the transition really struck me: the character of the sect changed almost overnight when the new leader rose to power. It reminded me of progressive websites that I've been involved with that have begun to eat their own through this same kind of Purer Than Thou rhetoric - 50book_poc, the original Slactivist, Ana Mardoll's blog. (Mardoll's blog is a bit different in that the rot set in not through the commentariat but in Mardoll herself, but it created a toxic environment in pretty much the same way.)

Is this just something that inevitably happens to groups of humans who try to be too far morally superior to the surrounding masses? Does the attempt inevitably loop back around into hair-trigger ostracism for the masses and worshipful adulation for the few who have successfully anointed themselves holier-than-thou?
osprey_archer: (books)
I should have paid more attention to the subtitle of Mandy Len Catron’s How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays. As the subtitle suggests, the book is mostly a memoir of Catron’s own love life, which mostly consists of a nine-year relationship with an emotionally unavailable man.

When it finally fails - inevitably and yet slowly, painfully, like a bandaid being peeled off millimeter by millimeter - Catron complains that she feels like everyone is judging her, and I can see why this perception is painful for her, but at the same time I am 110% with that judgmental everyone. The bad life lessons you learned from romantic comedies didn’t make you stay with this man, Catron. You chose him. Repeatedly. For nine years! Stop feeling so damn sorry for yourself.

(My mother says that we are most aggravated by behavior in others that reminds of us parts of ourselves we don’t like, and I think that is definitely operative here: God knows I can throw a good self-pity party when I feel like it. It’s just so much easier to see how embarrassing it is when someone else does it.)

The book’s summary led me to expect something different: it claims that How to Fall in Love with Anyone “explores the romantic myths we create and explains how they limit our ability to achieve and sustain intimacy,” which it does, sort of, if you call rehashing forty-year-old feminist critiques of Cinderella “exploring the romantic myths we create.”

The nadir of the book for me was the bit where Catron describes how she would revise Pretty Woman, were she to be in a position to remake it: rather than get together with the hero, the heroine leaves to pursue her own dreams as a single person.

I suppose I ought to be in favor of this sort of thing, but honestly it sounds unbearably preachy: you have this whole movie setting up a couple and then PSYCH! They’re not getting together after all, suckers! Go sit in the corner and think about what you did, wanting a romantically satisfying ending to this romance movie that telegraphed ROMANCE from scene one.

If you want to tell stories validating the single life, then for God’s sake just… tell stories about single people having full and happy lives. That’s it. That’s how you do it. No need to contort a romantic comedy into a non-romance. Go read Cranford and contemplate the lessons it teaches.
osprey_archer: (books)
E. M. Delafield's The Spirit of the Age and Other Stories from the Home Front filled me with mixed emotions. On the hand, I liked it so much I wanted to gobble it all up; but on the other hand, the short stories inside are just so perfectly the right size for my ten-minute breaks at work, I really wanted to save them just for that purpose.

I held out for as long as I could, but in the end I did gobble up the last quarter of the book in one sitting. It's a series of interconnected short stories about an English country village during World War II - published during the war, not after, which gives it a somewhat different feel from historical fiction somehow. The war is all-pervasive, and yet at the same time there's less emphasis on the specific events than historical fiction often has, somehow? No one mentions battles by name, but there's quite a lot of talk about how to create decent black-out curtains using your grandmother's old bombazine.

Delafield has that eye for the foibles of human nature which I often find in mid-twentieth century British authors (D. E. Stevenson, who also wrote about village life, has it too) - the way that people who are thrown together by proximity and don't necessarily have much of anything in common rub along together, and even become in an odd way fond of one another's annoying quirks.

I think my favorite, in this book - favorite in the sense of "the most amusing literary creation," not in the sense that I would ever want to spend time with her - is Miss Littlemug, a spinster neighbor whose conception of herself is almost ludicrously at odds with her actual behavior. When a visitor offers sympathy, for instance, Miss Littlemug replies:

"Dear, I must ask you not to say that. You mean it kindly, I know, but it's altogether misleading and sounds quite as though I were complaining - a thing I should never do, I hope, at any time. (As a mere child, I always preferred torture - actual physical torture at the stake - to making any complaint. I was like that.)"

Then of course she proceeds with a litany of complaints.

I have learned that it is wise to take the things people tell you about themselves with a grain of salt, especially when they are complimentary (for some reason this is especially true if the compliment is something like "I'm a good listener"), and it's great fun to see this kind of contradiction between self-understanding and actual deeds in a book.

And it's not at all mean-spirited; exasperating as the others may find Miss Littlemug, they beg her to remain on committees every time she tries to quit in a huff - never mind she seems to be useless as well as irritating. She's become part of the village and they're going to include her, even if doing so does occasionally call for some eye-rolling afterward. Actual physical torture at the stake, good grief.
osprey_archer: (books)
I was looking forward to writing a glowing review of Miranda Pennington’s A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontes Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work, because the first half of the book is really quite good. The memoir and the Bronte portions of the book are nicely balanced, and her commentary on the books themselves - especially Jane Eyre, which is clearly her favorite - are excellent: thoughtful and analytical but not to the point that they lose all sight of the emotional punch of these books.

I found it particularly interesting to read about Pennington’s first read of Jane Eyre, when she herself was about ten: young enough that she bonded most strongly with Jane the child, bullied by her cousin and sent away to the loathsome Lowood school. Most reviews either dismiss those sections or offer faintly defensive explanations for them, so it’s interesting to read about them from someone for whom Jane’s childhood was not merely something to slog through, but practically the whole point of the book.

I was also pleased to learn that everyone finds the first chapter of Shirley impossible. Mid-Victorian reviewers got bogged down and irritated just as much as modern readers.

Pennington is also delightfully funny. (“Being as compelling and distant as Rochester would require age, maturity, and sustained emotional dysfunction,” she faux-laments, remembering the romantic dreams of her youth.)

But then Pennington meets her future spouse and the whole book falls apart. Their relationship takes over the book; the Brontes come to seem like an afterthought. This would be bad enough on its own, but to add insult to injury, I didn’t like Pennington’s beau, or the way he treated her, or the way he treated his supposedly-ex-girlfriend who wasn’t actually 100% ex until after the first time he and Pennington broke up (!!!). It would have been unbearable to read about even if it wasn’t taking time away from the Brontes.

So in the end I can’t recommend this one. Maybe read the first half or so at the bookstore if you’re a Bronte fan. There’s not much good Bronte stuff once the boyfriend shows up, so you can put it aside then without worrying that you’re missing anything.
osprey_archer: (books)
Catherine Merridale's Lenin on the Train is an interesting if poorly-organized book about...well, very loosely about Lenin's train trip through Germany to Sweden and thence to Petrograd and History. But it's also about the political wrangling in Petrograd at the time, and the internal party politics of the Bolsheviks, and the plots of various foreign governments to exert some control on Russia's political future (Lenin was far from the only radical Russian smuggled back into the country), and a chapter-long digression about whether or not Lenin was in the pay of the Germans.

Except for the last, this is all interesting. I actually groaned when I read that the tsarist government put Kamenev on trial in 1915 and he denied that he was a member of the Bolsheviks; no doubt this was one of the reasons why Stalin decided to make Kamenev one of the victims of his first show trial years later. He knew from past experience that Kamenev would perjure himself if he thought it would save his skin.

But, interesting though it is, it never really comes together as a book. The pacing is odd: it takes a few chapters before we segue from politics on the ground in Petrograd to Lenin in Switzerland, and then we follow Lenin on the train through Germany and Sweden, into Petrograd, where the party faithful carry him on their shoulders, and Lenin takes the opportunity to climb on the turret of an armored car and harangue everyone in hearing range. Observers comment, somewhat disdainfully, that the Bolsheviks always put on a good show.

And then, though the train part is over, the book goes on for a while - Lenin takes over Pravda, Lenin lectures the party faithful who think he's woefully out of touch, Lenin is run out of town under cloud of accusations that he's taken German money - and then the book stops. There's a chapter about the German money accusations and then bam, the end.

The book gnaws around this last issue at some length, which is frustrating because the answer is clearly yes - the Germans gave him a special train to transport him across Germany! This fact is not in dispute - but the implication, that this made him a German puppet, is just as clearly wrong. Lenin never felt he owed anyone anything, least of all Germany; he used their offer to his own ends, and I suspect the Germans were sorry they made it when it became clear that he wasn't just going to impede the war effort, but had actually taken over Russia and was encouraging radical socialists within Germany.

An interesting book, but flawed.
osprey_archer: (kitty)
I started the next member of the Unread Book Club: Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby. I have long meant to read something by Dessen, but now that I’ve started This Lullaby I think it’s all right that I haven’t, actually, because I can’t remember the last time that I have so yearned for the heroine (Remy) to break the putative romantic hero’s fingers. In the first hundred pages, Dexter:

1. Sits beside Remy so enthusiastically when he introduces himself that he somehow manages to knock her against the wall. How is that even possible?

2. Insists that Remy give him a ride in her car. Remy tells him no but then just sits there when he lets himself in - she’s already in the car, by the way, she could have just driven off and left him, or run him over, or locked the doors, or done any number of things other than passively let him get in.

3. Then he drops food in her car. After she tells him not to bring food in her car in the first place. And I don’t mean he accidentally spills; I mean he gets a French fry out of his bag and purposefully drops it onto her gearshift while lecturing her about the importance of loosening up. This is when I decided that I wanted her to break his fucking fingers.

4. He also shows up randomly wherever Remy is, in a way that is probably meant to be romantic meet-cute but actually makes him seem like a stalker, especially when

5. Remy slaps a creepy guy in a club and Dexter shows up out of nowhere to save her from the bouncer by pretending to be her date. Because I guess “She’s with me” is a better defense than “I’m drunk and this random stranger is trying to drag me out of the club for nefarious purposes, so I slapped him.”

6. I have just gotten to the part where he climbs through Remy’s bedroom window. I hope she will suffocate him with a pillow and the rest of the book will be about how she gets rid of the body, but I can already tell that they’re going to get together and Remy is probably going to go skinny-dipping and track sand into her beloved car to show that she’s no longer “uptight.” For which read “possessed of reasonable boundaries.”

I think I should probably just quit while I’m ahead. Or at least less far behind than I could become if I keep reading this. Unless it actually does end with Remy snapping and running Dexter over with her car when he tries to forcibly cadge a ride with her yet again?


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