A Year of Themed Reviews – July: Breaking Barriers: No Place for a Lady by Barbara Hodgson

No Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women TravellersNo Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women Travellers by Barbara Hodgson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Covering the mid-seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, Hodgson’s work introduces us to the women who made a name for themselves travelling the world. It’s divided by country, so rather than really getting to know the individual women, you see a kaleidoscope of perspectives on each country before moving on to the next. Which can be interesting. But it also becomes a superficial overview of the ground-breaking women who were opening up the world as a place that women were capable of exploring. It could be a good introduction to travel history, but there’s not really enough information for it to stand by itself. Furthermore, the writing leaves something to be desired. It’s lackluster and very basic and not at all the caliber I was expecting from a book where every leaf of paper is thick and glossy as a magazine. This is a book that feels like it’s going to be college-course-caliber reading, but turns out to be a mass market paperback experience.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent MillaySavage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay is a force of nature and Nancy Milford writes like one. Seldom do I finish a book and find that not a word of praise said about it has been exaggerated. Milford reveals so wholly the life and person of Millay in this compelling, insightful biography it is as if we were childhood friends of Millay’s looking over our own memories. Starting with Millay’s poverty-stricken childhood caring for her two sisters while their single mother worked as a travelling nurse, to her bisexual, sexually free adulthood decades before the free-love sixties, the stratospheric heights of renown she and her writing achieved, her later addiction to alcohol, morphine, and other drugs and the havoc wrecked on her life by those addictions, Milford shies from no dark corner. But it’s not all sex and addiction. Millay demonstrated in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, men accused of taking part in the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and sentenced to death for a crime they almost certainly did not commit. She refused awards proffered her by prestigious Literary groups, if they refused on the grounds of “moral failings” to honor her accomplished female friends. (For of course, male poets weren’t held to this standard; a male poet could abandon his wife and run off with another woman and provided his poetry was good enough no one would flicker an eyelash.) She spoke out exhaustingly against American isolationism as Hitler’s thugs vomited atrocities in Europe, sacrificing her health and personal standards to write what she believed was desperately needed propaganda in favour of America entering the war:

“If I can write just one poem that will turn the minds of a few to a more decent outlook…what does it matter if I compose a bad line or lose my reputation as a craftsman?…I used to think it very important to write only good poetry. Over and over I worked to make it as flawless as I could. What does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and their ideals? If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.” (452)

She stood up for what she believed in. She was passionate about everything she loved. She loved wildly and widely. Savage Beauty is an incredible book about an incredible woman. An inestimable pleasure.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister ed. by Helena Whitbread

I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840 by Anne Lister
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

*This is not the exact edition I read. My edition was 360 pages and only included 6 years of Anne’s diary.

Actually, let’s start off with that. Including the years of Anne’s birth and death suggested (to me) that this book was going to include the entirety of her diaries. I heard about Anne Lister from an episode of the wonderful Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which referenced I Know My Own Heart and made me determined to include it in June’s reviews honoring Pride month. Anne lived in early 1800’s England, helping her aunt and uncle run Shibden Hall and assuming its management entirely after their deaths in the 1820s. She was well-educated, flirtatious, and sassy. Anne wrote frankly about being attracted exclusively to women – she doesn’t use the word lesbian and I believe her diaries predate the inclusion of that word in the lexicon – and had many romantic and sexual relationships. In her later years she, and the lifelong companion she finally found, travelled extensively until Anne’s death from fever at the foot of the Caucasian Mountains. The travel portion of her life especially piqued my interest. I was decidedly non-plussed to discover the edition I had borrowed ended before she was able to indulge her wanderlust. There’s even a note saying the diaries from that part of her life “are beyond the scope of this book.” WHY? ARE YOU PUBLISHING A SEQUEL?? (Apparently not?) Furthermore, language has evolved somewhat since the 1800’s. Anne’s word choices and sentence structure are often baffling. There aren’t really enough footnotes to make her writing completely accessible to a modern reader. Though Anne’s handwriting is often unintelligible when she’s not writing in code so I can only imagine what the editors went through to make even a small portion of her diaries readable. For which they have my gratitude. This was an interesting snap shot into the minutiae of an interesting woman’s life, but if you are going to pick it up see if you can find a copy that includes a larger portion of her life and has more foot notes.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Earth Day: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent SpringSilent Spring by Rachel Carson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was terrifying. Even nearly sixty years later, Carson’s cry for caution as we drench our fragile world in powerful chemicals – though often for the best of reasons; stopping multitudinous deaths by insect-born diseases and preventing staggering crop losses to various herbaceous predators – cuts to the heart of an issue that still plagues us today: our powerful chemical helpers may be causing serious problems. Maybe. We don’t know.

Starting off with quick, easy to follow overviews of biology and chemistry, Silent Spring spends a chapter each on the pesticide-threatened areas: ground water, soil, plants, rivers, and animals. You would think that would be the end of it but it goes deeper. Cells. Bacteria. Cancer. Each page brings new layers of side effects and unintended consequences. After almost sixty years, you would hope that none of this would be relevant anymore. This is not necessarily the case.

Pro-tip: Don’t read the first few chapters while eating.

Terrifying.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Earth Day: The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and GreedThe Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was not anticipating the range of emotions this book elicited. Anger, disappointment, delight, worry, and awe is a tall order for a book that, at first glance, is about one man, who cuts down one tree. It is when you start reading that you realize this book is so much more. A history of logging on the Northwest coast, a snapshot of white-native relations, both to each other and to the land around them, a gripping mystery and an unexpectedly heartbreaking story of loss, Vaillant’s book is much more than one man’s biography. I very highly recommend it.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among GhostsThe Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not just a memoir, The Woman Warrior combines fiction and biographical elements too. Hong Kingston writes partly of her childhood in America; she’s never been to China; partly of her mother’s childhood in China and later years in America, and partly of fables her mother shared while they were growing up. It is utterly un-nostalgic. She writes honestly of the myriad griefs of growing up too American for Chinese parents, and too Chinese for the surrounding American culture. And writes honestly of her own failings in some disturbing accounts of bullying her schoolmates – the classmate who refused to speak, the boy with mental disabilities who spent his spare time sitting silently at her family’s laundry while they steamed and washed and pressed in tropics-like conditions. She is not exactly remorseful. Nor is remorse evident in the first chapter, No Name Woman, which recounts a mob raiding and trashing the house of Hong Kingston’s aunt. Animals are slaughtered and stores strewn into the mud as punishment for the aunt’s adulterous pregnancy, her husband having gone overseas years ago to make money during a time of extended scarcity. The aunt is expelled from her family and her name is deliberately forgotten. She dies soon after. She doesn’t name the man who impregnated her. He doesn’t come forward and remains unpunished. It’s a dark way to start off a book even if it is followed by a fictionalized tale of the author leaving home in her youth and training in marital arts for 15 years with an elderly couple living alone on a mountain. She returns to her family, raises an army, and sets about avenging the wrongs done to her village by wealthy barons and a government concerned only with its own wealth, eventually putting a new emperor on the throne. She is hailed as a hero everywhere. Valued and powerful. And a cutting, polar opposite to the rest of the book. To her real life.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – February: Black History, & March: Women’s History: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The perfect book to cap off February and move into March with, Hidden Figures reveals the little known story of the black women mathematicians who worked with NASA to help the United States win the space race and set the first man on the moon. Let me say that again for the people in the back: in the 30’s there were black women mathematicians working for NASA. And Shetterly introduces you to almost all of them. These women are brilliant. Determined. Ambitious. They leave their steady, if drastically underpaid teaching jobs when NASA puts out the call in WWII for more “computers” to hand calculate pages of complex equations about aerodynamics for the engineers and physicists – careers often denied to the black female computers regardless of their qualifications – to fine tune the performance of the new planes NASA – at that time the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA – was inventing. Shetterly does a beautiful job integrating the personal lives of these women with the changes in American society, and world history from the 1930s to the end of the space race. Hidden Figures is a science-packed read and a great story.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam

The Wife's Tale: A Personal HistoryThe Wife’s Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A complicated personal history of Ethiopian Yètèmegn Mèkonnen; one hundred years of life retold by her granddaughter Aida Edemariam. Yètemegn is born in Ethiopia in the early 1900s to reasonably well off parents and married off at the ripe old age of eight to a man almost in his thirties, an ambitious priest named Tsèga Teshale. Yètèmegn will have 10 children by him and weather revolutions, famine, Tsèga’s unjust imprisonment, his death and the deaths of several of their children. Despite not being able to read, she makes it her personal mission to clear his name and regain their family home and lands, taking on the court system to win back the house they built together from the priests who stole it after he was imprisoned. Edemariam weaves her grandmother’s story in amongst the seasonal changes, cultural events, and political machinations Ethiopia endured from 1916 to 2013 and speckles the whole work with the legends, hymns, and religious passages that would have informed and governed Yètèmegn’s days. Some of it I was baffled by; the unexplained ritual early on in Yètèmegn’s marriage where her neck is daubed with a dark cooked paste of soot, kohl and oil seeds and the marks are then tattooed on with a needle was obviously something she was enraged and horrified by, but I lacked the necessary background to understand what was happening or why she reacted the way she did. But overall, the cultural gap is tidily bridged by Edemariam. Her skill, and Yètèmegn’s courage and spirit, will linger with you long after you finish this book.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – Belated January: Personal Growth: How I Stayed Alive When My Brain was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention by Susan Rose Blauner

How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person's Guide to Suicide PreventionHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention by Susan Rose Blauner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are in crisis dial 911 or see this website for a list of help lines in your area https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/ (in Canada)
http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-he… (worldwide list of crisis hotlines)
In the States call 1-800-273-8255

“I wish I could make your suicidal thoughts disappear, but I can’t. What I can do is teach you how to get through those excruciating moments when every cell in your brain and body is screaming, ‘I want to die!’ By surviving those moments unharmed and learning new ways of coping, you will gradually create a set of tools that can make life more manageable.” (3)

I had never heard of this book until I passed it on a library shelf in a period of random wanderings. It is exactly what it says, a collection of what Blauner refers to as “Tricks of the Trade” that allowed her – with the guidance and assistance of regular therapy, and the stabilizing effect of medication – to cope with and gradually disarm the suicidal thoughts that for 18 years ruled her days, hospitalized her three times, and nearly ended her life. It is at times a very challenging book, aside from teaching readers how to reformat their brains and keep themselves alive, Blauner includes discussions of her prior suicidal gestures that at times go from frank and open right into graphic. She recommends reading this book in small, manageable chunks, remaining aware of your body while you do, and if you get distressed take a break and do something nice for yourself. Excellent advice that can be applied in a variety of situations. And then there’s the crisis plans, meditations, exercises in identifying your feelings and breaking habit loops. It’s a very thorough book. I hope everyone who needs a copy will find it.

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