Friday, July 21, 2017

Battle Cry Is Great History

Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
Oxford [U.K.] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2003, c1988.
xix, 909 p. : ill., maps, music ; 24 cm. 

If you are looking for a one volume history of the Civil War instead of reading five or six separate Civil War histories, then you can't go wrong with McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.  It's simply a masterful handling of the war that ripped the US apart for four extremely bloody years.  It's no wonder that the book was a huge bestseller and won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for History.

McPherson begins his book with the US-Mexican War and builds a sound case for considering enslavement (and the unyielding defense of slavery's expansion and power) as the ultimate cause and fight of the war.  McPherson also gives great attention to the cultural and political movements involved before, during and immediately after the Civil War.

It's not a short book (about 900 pages), but it is well written and illustrated with interesting photos and a number of very clear maps.

I read this book this summer as a prelude to reading the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.  It was a really helpful preparation for Grant's long work.  I would highly recommend it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reasons to Read Not to Watch

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
New York : Razorbill, c2007.
288 p. ; 22 cm.   

As you can see, Thirteen Reasons Why was published back in 2007, so why am I getting around to reading it ten years later?  In one word: Netflix.  Back in March, Netflix launched a thirteen episode series based on the novel, and the series has proven hugely popular and controversial - more so than the book.

So I ended up both watching the series and reading the book.  I was an interesting experience.  It really makes you think about what works in reading - and conversely what doesn't work when filmed. The book is not perfect, but it is strong and it's brevity saves it from becoming voyeuristic, lurid and exploitative - which I believe the Netflix version unfortunately is (in addition to being irresponsible and just plain icky).

But what about the book?  I liked the book well enough.  The book is clearly a work of fiction - and as such functions more like a mystery, tragedy and psychological ordeal instead of a supposedly accurate depiction of bullying and suicide.  Also it's brevity allows it to move along and not drag out scenes for dramatic effect.

I'm guessing many, many more people are going to watch the series.  I just hope that especially young people will watch it with supportive friends and adults.  Despite its shortcomings, the series does invite discussion of extremely important topics such as bullying, date rate, sexism, and of course, suicide.  The popularity of the series has also led to an increased demand for the book, and so I'm glad I had a chance to read it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
New York : Flatiron Books, 2016.
280 p. ; 22 cm.

I'm glad I read Russo's book about a transgender teen girl who has moved to live with her father and attend a new high school after bullying and brutal assault at her previous hometown and school.

I think what I loved most is that the book manages to be basically a sweet tale of friendship and romance - while threading that narrow ground of avoiding being either a tale of brutality and violence or a naive upbeat "everything will be okay" fable.  As the review from Kirkus notes, it is "a sweet, believable romance that stokes the fires of hope without devolving into saccharine perfection or horrific tragedy."

It's a great book for trans teens, adults and cisgender folks like me! 

I also really liked that the author, a trans woman, has an afterword, especially meant for cis readers, where she explains ways in which her story reflects only one version of reality (and a creatively fictionalize one at that), and should not be taken as plain truth guide to what life is like for trans teens.  She also includes several hotline resources for readers who may be contemplating suicide.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Gut Feeling

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
New York, NY : Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.
355 p. : col. ill. ; 24 cm.

I've been telling people about this book since I started reading it a couple weeks ago. It's a great read, introducing the lay reader (i.e me!) to a very broad, complex and contemporary field of scientific research - the microbiome.  As Yong neatly lays out, the study of microorganisms really begins with Leeuwenhoek in the 1660s.  Unfortunately, the study of microbes in the 19th and 20th century focused almost exclusively on the disease-causing pathogens - leading to the overuse of antibiotics and the obsession with trying to shield people from all microbes, instead of just bad effects of some.

What makes Yong's book so fascinating is how he gets the reader to rethink not only the us vs. them attitude toward microbes, but the entire notion that there is an us and a them when it comes to living in a world of microbes.  He convincingly shows that almost all living creatures are the sum of the complex and intricate relationships between ourselves and the trillions of microbes that live within and without us and affect us for good and ill.  Given that each of us contains trillions of microbes and could not function without them, it starts to dawn on the reader that not only does one contain multitudes, but perhaps one IS those multitudes.

The other achievement of Yong is to navigate both cover and convey the wide ranges of research and investigation into the microbiome - from the microbes that make deep sea life possible near hydrothermal vents, to attempts at reintroducing microbes into hospitals and public spaces with the goal of having healthy microbiomes instead of sterile environments.

Like Planet of Viruses, the book I read earlier this school year, this is a science book I'll be recommending.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Which Way?

Looking Backward, 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy
New York : Signet Classics, [2009]
xvii, 236 p. ; 18 cm.

I'm glad I finally got around to reading this 19th century Utopian novel. Looking Backward is really a wonderful artifact of 19th century Utopian hopes and philosophy.

I have to say that reading it now, was in some ways depressing - not because it naively overlooks the dangers of totalitarianism - as this old 1988 NYT review claims, but because of how little progress has been made toward eliminating the savage greed, violence, mercilessness and competition that undergird the market economy that Bellamy was critiquing and under which we still live in the 21st century.

The novel's weakest points are it's narrative dullness and drab characters.  In many ways the literary and narrative quality of the novel takes a back seat to the economic and humanistic philosophy of the novel. The plot is really a device to serve up Bellamy's Utopian thinking, but as Eliot Fintushel exclaims in the afterword, what a lovely Utopia it is that Bellamy has dreamed up.  It's hard not to enjoy shimmering dream that we get in Looking Backward.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tortured to Life

The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepard
New York, NY : Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
420 p. ; 21 cm.

On a positive note, I'd say that The Madman's Daughter is creative and kind of fun to read.  It also made me want to read H. G. Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau.  But beyond that the novel didn't really didn't hit the target for me.

Shepard reimagines the story of Dr. Moreau from the vantage point of a character she creates, Juliet, the 16-year-old daughter whom Moreau abandoned to the harsh fate of being an orphan in Victorian England.  Juliet finds her way to the island in the South Pacific where her father is carrying out his hideous operations aimed at creating humans from animals.  But, as the positive Booklist review notes, "this is a romantic-triangle book first and foremost, as Juliet trembles, blushes, and heaves her bosom at both Moreau's hunky assistant and a dashing castaway." I didn't mind the romance but it just was overwrought for my tastes.  Combined, with the rather ludicrous animal-human metamorphoses that occur at the end of the novel, I at times just felt like the novel was silly, rather than thrilling.  For me that is too bad, because I think if it had been toned down a bit, it would have been both exciting, romantic, and thought-provoking.

However, I still would mention it to a student looking for some kind of romantic, thrilling adventure with a bit of the grotesque and science fiction thrown into the mix.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Yeah, I'm Scowling

Scowler by Daniel Kraus
New York : Ember, 2014.
289 p. ; 22 cm.     

I wish I could say I liked this book - I really do.  It's supposed to be a devilishly good Midwestern Gothic tale. It is an intense, twisted, psychological horror story of human depravity and domestic violence - which just didn't move or captivate me.

It's an odd tale of a 19 year old young man who at age ten survived his father's attempts to kill him after beating and torturing his wife.  Unfortunately for us and for the young man, his psyche is a twisted bin of delusions, violence, sexual frustration and anger - embodied in his three vividly imagined "living" playthings - a bear, a little Jesus, and a toothy, vile looking toy with very sharp edges - yep, Scowler.  All of this comes exploding to the fore when there  are the surreal impacts of several small meteorites in rural Iowa where this tale takes place.  This cosmic event breaks open the prison where his father is being held - setting him free to come after the family again, and plants a weirdly magnetic and never cooling meteorite on the farm where the family lives.

There were times as I read it that it just felt sordid and creepy.  I'm okay with dark and violence, but for me it has to have more than the goal of just entertainment or creating the "ick" factor (which this book definitely does).  However, I think I'm in the minority in my lack of enthusiasm for Scowler.  The book has received many rave reviews (check out the book's official page), and is popular with those wanting mature and gruesome horror tales.

It's not a book I'll be pushing, but if someone finds it and likes it, that's okay with me.