Wonder Women!!!

September 26, 2016

(If you didn’t read the title in the in the 70s TV show intro voice, I don’t know what to do with you)

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History. The title says it all. In this deceptively slim book, Sam Maggs introduces us to a bunch (there are actually more than 25) of badass women who fought against sexism, racism, imperialism (really, just all of the isms), etc. to do amazing things in any number of fields.

The book is kind of STEM (Science, Engineering, and Mathematics) -heavy, but since women are particularly underrepresented in these areas (despite making a lot of really important contributions — oh hey, Ada Lovelace, et. al!), it’s nice to see these women receive their (over) due. Maggs doest skimp though, she also includes stories of other inventors, spies, journalists, aviatrices (yes, tat’s the plural of aviatrix!), and globetrotters. I really enjoyed reading these mini-biographies because I love learning about women who kick ass and  take names while defying all norms and expectations.

Each profile is pretty short, yet packed with information. There’s just enough to give you the background to cite in a conversation, but it leaves you wanting more (my galley didn’t have the completed bibliography, so I need to do my own research). In addition to being super smart and informative, Wonder Women is also extremely fun and funny.

In addition to the profiles on historically kick-ass women, each section concludes with a short interview with a women who is currently doing the thing and furthering the cause. I loved these interviews mixed with the stories of women from history (it was also sort of encouraging to see how many women these days have more support…. and also discouraging how many barriers they still face). I kind of wish there was some sort of overarching conclusion to tie it all together, but I’m just picky like that.

My only concern comes from something that I also think might be one of its strengths: the language of the book is very familiar and kind of trendy. It uses a lot of slang that is popular right this second. I just worry that it will make the book feel like a cheesy relic a few years from now, even though the information will still be fantastic and inspiring for many years to come.

Overall though, I loved this. It was fun and informative and inspiring and I think everyone should read it. Read it yourself so you can learn about awesome intelligent ladies, then give it to your younger sister or niece or friend or whatever so she knows she can do whatever she sets her mind to.

Wonder Women is out from Quirk Books on October 4. Mark your calendars!

Before heading up to NY for Book Riot Live (or book nerd camp for grown-ups, as I’ve decided to call it), I spent an evening at the Free Library of Philadelphia listening to a conversation with Patti Smith. She was on tour to promote her new memoir M Train, but spoke a bit about Just Kids as well.

I’d re-read Just Kids in a sort of semi-preparation for the event and was experiencing a flurry of mixed emotions. I loved Just Kids the first time I read it. I’ve proclaimed (often) that the book changed my life and when that thing about listing your 10 most important books was all over Facebook, you better believe that it was on my list.

And so, when I re-read it (with pen in hand to underline all the lines that changed my life) I felt a little bit let down. Much of the language is poetic, and I still find the evolution of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe beautiful and inspiring, but something was missing — I didn’t feel the same stirring in my soul as the first time I read it and I found this troubling.

Hearing Patti Smith speak was lovely, but the amazing (for me) moment came during the audience Q & A at the end. A woman stood up and said that Patti Smith had been a great role model for her as an artist, a mother, and a feminist and asked her what advice she would give to a young girl growing up right now. Patti Smith started talking and I found myself taking fevered notes on my phone:

  • Do the best that you can
  • Think for yourself
  • Don’t judge based on superficial things
  • Feel yourself as an individual
  • Connect with the world, but remember who you are [when] unconnected

In hearing this advice I was able to identify why Just Kids meant so much to me when I initially read it and why it didn’t hit as hard upon re-reading.

I will be the first to admit that I definitely don’t have everything figured out, but I can say with some amount of confidence that I’ve begun to figure myself out. I think reading Just Kids had a lot (though admittedly not everything) to do with that; it showed me the merits of embracing my “authentic self.” The process of being who I want to be — quirks and bizarre enthusiasms and all — began long before I read Just Kids and continued after, but I think that the book helped something click in my brain. And so when I began my re-reading, that switch was already flipped and the book didn’t feel as revolutionary.

Without this revelation, I’m not sure how I would feel about this book right now. In acknowledging what I took from it the first time, I feel like I can still call it a book that is important in my life. And it’s entirely possible that I’ll pick it up again some time in the future and have other, entirely different feelings about it. I believe that I have changed a lot as a person, especially in the last 5 years, so it makes perfect sense for the way I experience books to change.

I don’t have to give up books that meant a lot to me at the time just because I’ve grown and changed. And that realization has been particularly freeing.

Nina MacLaughlin got a degree in classics and spent her twenties working for a Boston newspaper. Then, craving something different, she quit her job and answered a Craigslist ad for a carpenter’s assistant. One phrase stuck out: “Women strongly encouraged to apply.” Before she could second-guess herself she sent a response explaining that she didn’t have any experience, but that she wanted to work with her hands and she was a fast learner.

Spoiler alert: she got the job.

Going on this journey with MacLaughlin as she lugs equipment and learns how to expertly drive in a nail or lay tile was oddly riveting. I would never expect repetitive physical tasks to be so engrossing, but the way MacLaughlin writes them, they really are.

Reading Hammer Head gave me a greater appreciation for the work that goes into everything. It made me want to make something myself.

I highly recommend this book. Even if, unlike me, you don’t spend hours watching home improvement shows and HGTV, I think this will still fascinate readers.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a book that I actually pre-ordered because I was so intrigued by the story Jill Lepore was telling and it holds up. The book is incredibly interesting. It was great to see how the character of Wonder Woman in many ways grew from the women’s suffrage and women’s liberation movements.

My main complaint is that this book felt like three stories in one. All of the stories are connected and I understand Lepore’s motivation in spending time introducing the readers to Sanger and Byrne and their struggles wight he beginnings of the birth control movement, as well as Marston’s early research, but at a certain point it feels like that’s not what I was really promised and not what I started reading the book to learn about (especially all the stuff about Marston’s research. I get that it’s kind of his “origin story,” but…yeah).

I’m still getting my feet wet with comics and so I learned a lot about the early days of comics and Wonder Woman from this book. It wasn’t quite the scandalous history I’d been hoping for (and maybe lead to believe) — I think Marston comes off more as delusional and mercenary than truly forward-thinking — but it was certainly an interesting read.

If I’m being picky, I would have liked to see a bit more of a discussion of what a resurgence of interest in comic books and Wonder Woman means, especially for her place as a feminist icon. The book is kind of front-loaded; we get a lot of examination of the groundwork the came before Marston created Wonder Woman, then it seems like we trot right through most of her hey-day and positively speed through the decades after Marston’s death and Wonder Woman’s weakening and revival. But really, as a whole, I enjoyed this book. It was interesting and informative and I now know way more about Wonder Woman and early comic books than I ever expected.

The Last Batch of 2014

January 14, 2015

In my life I am constantly reading and though I try to stay consistent in my reviewing, I am usually a bit behind in that area. Yes, I’ll pause for your gasps of shock and disbelief. It’s a new year and there’s a new crop of books, so I figure why should I bring my backlog with me? So now you’re getting little snapshots of many of the books I read in the latter part of 2014. Some books won’t be mentioned here because I plan to talk about them in a slightly different context. But more on that later.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah follows Nigerian teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze into and out of other countries as they enter adulthood and navigate race, romance, and relationships. Sharp, funny, and fearless, it’s a great read fro pretty much anyone.

 

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

Hatshepsut was the longest reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, but her rise to power and the circumstances of her reign are shrouded in secrecy. The language of this book kind of bothered me — the whole thing was necessarily somewhat speculative, but the continuous hedging irked me. I would have preferred a disclaimer at the start that allowed it to be written with clearer, more certain language.

 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird is an enchanting reimagining of a classic tale. This book is masterfully inventive and Oyeyemi’s strong, brilliant, beautiful voice shines through.

 

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell 

This collection of essays is just as weird as I would expect something from Karen Russell to be. I didn’t like this collection as much as Vampires in the Lemon Grove (which is newer). There is a kind of extra melancholy streak to these stories besides the dark twisty-ness of other stuff of hers that I’ve liked.

 

Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear

Dana Goodyear jumps —tastebuds first— into “foodie” culture and the world of extreme eating, following devotees of ultra-authentic ethnic cuisines, raw food aficionados, and so much more. I would eat maybe two of the things described in this book, but I’m bizarrely fascinated by these people and their lifestyles. Sometimes I wish she would have dug a bit deeper or described a bit more, but this was an enjoyable read.

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A superflu wipes out huge swaths of the population. Fifteen years later, a roving band of actors and musicians travels between communities of survivors performing Shakespeare. The narrative hops between the Traveling Symphony and the decline of civilization immediately after the pandemic. It’s a vivid and utterly transfixing novel.

 

The Martian by Andy Weir

Due to a series of unfortunate events, astronaut Mark Watney is living alone on Mars. And no one knows. With no way to signal Earth, a limited food supply, and a dogged determination to stay alive, Watney puts his skills and smart-assert to the test. I read this in 24 hours. I did not stop. I completely blew off familial obligations while reading this over the holidays. I have no regrets.

 

A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean

This is the first romance novel I’ve read in quite some time, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the first book in the Rules of Scoundrels series which revolves around London’s most exclusive gaming hell. I won’t say much about it, but it’s significantly less ridiculous than a lot of other historical romance tends to be.

 

So now you’re mostly caught up to where I am now with my current reading. As I mentioned before, this isn’t a complete list of everything I’ve read this year, but I think it gives a pretty good picture. There will be a few other things that mention books from 2014, but my 2015 book reviews will start popping up here pretty soon. We’re moving onward!

Those of you who follow me on instagram (and if you don’t you’re missing awesome book pics …and cat pics, but shush) know that I was super excited about Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. I started reading it almost immediately after I finished Not That Kind of Girl. It was so weird going straight from Dunham’s book to this. Lena Dunham is quite the controversial and polarizing individual (perhaps more than she should be and I have loads of opines about that re: the media and public perception of/reaction to a woman being successful and owning her sexuality and poet at a relatively young age). Then there’s Amy Poehler, whom I love and everyone loves and if you don’t I may subject you to a rigorous background check to make sure you’re still a good person because how can you not be pro-Poehler?! But I digress…

Poehler writes about funny things and difficult things and sad things, all with honesty, grace, and humor. The book does occasionally feel a bit gimmickry, but not overwhelmingly so and since she is a comedian, I expect a little schtick.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book. It was a quick, fun, and funny read and it made me think about a few things — like how you should say “yes please” to anything that life throws at you. And for that I thank Amy Poehler. I may have read this in 2014, but it’s 2015 now, and having a “yes please” attitude going into the new year seems like a good idea.

In the past, whenever people would hate on Lena Dunham for somewhat non-specific reasons  (if you have real reasons, that’s fine, and if your reasons are in the how-dare-she-show-her-not-so-perfect-body vein, eff you), I would point out that lena Dunham is not Hannah Horvath (her character on Girls). I figured you could find Hannah completely insufferable and still like Dunham. After reading Not That Kind of Girl, I’m less sure.

This book reads like the “rejected” pile from the Girls writers’ room. Narratives that would fit right in thematically, but are maybe a bit too disjointed or murky to work as a TV show, pop up here. Instead of being self-aware, it kind of feels hyper-aware and self-conscious, like Dunham is baring all and pointing out the weird before anyone else can. It just feels disingenuous and like she’s trying too hard.

Not That Kind of Girl was s quick read and by turns interesting and baffling. If you’re a fan of her work then you might enjoy it, but I wouldn’t put it on any “must read” lists.

Save the Date — Review

November 9, 2014

Save the Date is about all (or, you know, some) of the weddings that author Jen Doll has been to and the crazy hijinks that have ensued. I have recently entered the season of life in which it seems everyone I have ever met is getting engaged, planning a wedding, and getting married. Apparently, the lasts for years. Needless to say, I look to books and humor to get me through these trying times.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I enjoy all those wedding shows on TLC, as well as the scintillating Sunday brunch gossip of what crazy thing happened where, so how could I not love a book of wedding stories? Well somehow I managed it.

To start, the majority of Doll’s narratives feel… familiar — like these stories happen at pretty much every wedding happening every weekend.

This book is also presented as a sort of exploration of contemporary relationships, with Doll telling the reader about her relationship with each wedding date and what she may or may not have learned. This was somewhat infuriating after a while because, as in a sitcom, you find yourself pulling for a couple, only to find the beau replaced by a new incarnation in the next chapter. Obviously it’s real life and in the past, but her writing style left me feeling hopeful for one boyfriend’s prospects, only to be disappointed soon after.

The book had it’s moments. It’s pretty skim-able, but I’m not sure I would suggest buying it. Your public (or academic) library is your friend, folks!

When I saw a blurb about Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door on Book Riot I was so excited. I think Harper Lee is amazing and this book promised a glimpse into the famously reclusive author’s life and an answer to the question everyone asks: why didn’t she write another book?

Now, having read the book, as well as Lee’s statements against it, I’m feeling a bit conflicted.

There’s an NPR piece that looks at things from a slightly different perspective and doesn’t make Mills seem quite so predatory/opportunistic, but I still have lingering doubts and that makes me somewhat uneasy and unsure of how I should feel about this.

I will say that this does read much more as a memoir than a biography (whether that was the initial intention, I can’t say). Mills reflects on the time she spent with Lee and her inner circle and shares some of their stories and anecdotes, but this isn’t the all-encompassing story of Lee’s life. I enjoyed the glimpse into the everyday lives of Nelle Harper, Alice, and their group of friends.

All the same, the book doesn’t quite deliver on all of its promises. We get a partial answer to the big question, but nothing really solid. And while Mills paints a picture of what a day spent with Harper Lee is like, readers don’t get a full idea of her life or much of the Lee family history. There is also a bit of repetition in some of the descriptive language and the anecdotes that Mills shares.

If Mills was a close to that group as her book suggests, then she lived the dream. I always want to know what it would be like to spend time with a great author — to simply share stories and talk about life and literature. Lee comes across as a woman with incomparable intellect and wit, with a unique take on life. If Lee never gave her blessing to the book, then I respect that, but I’ll still cherish the peek at her personality and the spectacular relationships she has with those around her.

***

There will be a lot of reviews in the coming days. I appear to follow a very loose pattern in which I post reviews regularly for a while and then accidentally stop for a period of time (I don’t stop reading, of course. That would be absurd). I’ll work on being better at that, but no promises. If anything, we’ll say that my sporadic posting encourages appreciation of each individual post.

How could I possibly resist a book with this title (and a cover image of a sheep looking back, possibly seductively—I don’t know sheep sexual signals)? I couldn’t, obviously. I first heard about this book back at BEA 2013 and immediately thought “yes. I must read that” because narrative social history + taboo subject = awesome (until you’re awkwardly carrying this book on public transit, but more on that later).

I have to say, this book was way drier than I was expecting it to be. Jesse Bering’s snarky voice comes through in between the facts, which is refreshing, but the book is data-heavy and not so much the compendium of “here’s all the crazy crap that turns us on” that it kept promising to be.

Much of the book discussed societal and medical ideas about “perversions” and how they’ve changed through history as well as ideas of “naturalness” and “harmfulness” as they pertain to perversions (or paraphilias, as we learn they’re called). It’s all interesting stuff, just not as flashy and a bit denser reading.

I would certainly recommend it, just know what you’re getting into. It’s not a “dirty” book or an exhaustive list of the kinds of fetishes/perversions/paraphilias one can have (there are a lot), but more of a discussion of the progression of social and medical thought about them.

Also, if you read it in public with the cover visible, you will get an array of looks (it’s not like it’s a how-to guide, but people are weird and judge-y), just a warning.

Go forth and read (you pervs)!