Sunday, September 10, 2017

Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti

Many know Jessica Valenti as the founder of Feministing, a feminist blog and website.  However, she's also a successful author. This book is more of a primer on feminism than an in depth analysis of the subject and is aimed at those who don't consider themselves feminists (think: "I'm not a feminist but..." and then insert something that is totally feminist, like equal pay for equal work.).

The book is written in a very colloquial style, which initially I really liked but then which really got on my nerves.  I understand and appreciate a more simple style of writing, but the overuse of curse words really took away from the valuable points that Ms. Valenti was trying to make. I feel like she lost credibility along the way. That being said, the point of the book was to ensure that the younger generation, who tends to believe that feminism is dead or not needed or not for them, understands why feminism is so important.  And since this was the goal, I found that Ms. Valenti adequately accomplished that goal. She provided numerous examples of why, even in this day and age, feminism is extremely important and necessary even where it might look different than what it did in our mothers' or grandmother's time.

Generally, a decent first shot, but I hope to find something better out there.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

I have a confession:  I got this book out because I worked with Ben's brother, Andy and because it takes place mostly in Concord, NH, a city that I now work in and know somewhat well. That being said, I don't regret getting this book out at all and I actually really loved it.

It's not unusual to have a murder in a mystery.  A cast of unique and quirky characters with interesting backstories and even insurmountable odds. However, the insurmountable odd in this series is an asteroid that is inevitably going to hit the earth but no one knows where on the earth is going to hit exactly. In spite of this, Detective Palace of the Concord Police Department is investigating what he believes to be the homicide of a local insurance agent that was found hanging in the bathroom of a local fast food restaurant.  The fast food restaurant is obviously a Mickey D's although the company itself has gone out of business, as has Dunkin' Donuts (a sacrilege in New England). Cell phone service is getting more and more spotty. Many employees are going "bucket list" - they are quitting their jobs and their lives and trying to do everything that they wouldn't have done during their normal lives under normal circumstances.  This includes many police officers. Who wants to solve a murder when the world is going to end by the close of the year?

The insurance agent's body is found hanging in a seeming suicide but our protagonist thinks that it was a homicide and not a suicide and is dead set on proving that he's right. I found myself starting off thinking that Palace was just going to be a regular, dogged grunt.  But then I found myself giving him more and more respect as the very well written novel progressed. He followed his instincts and was persistent, dogged even, in attempting to find justice for his victim in the light of much heel digging and joking. The novel itself moves quickly and with confidence. I loved Detective Palace and I loved the premise of the book: in a time when everyone has an "I Don't Give a F***" attitude, I  was very happy to see someone who just went about his business.

Go get this - I'm about to go get the second novel in the trilogy!  :)

Monday, September 4, 2017

American Fire by Monica Hesse

As with most of the books I read, I heard about this one on NPR.  I am also on a true crime kick right now - think Making a Murderer, the Keepers, the disappearance of Maura Murray and Adnan Syed. So when I heard about this book, I was intrigued.

This book is non-fiction written by journalist Monica Hesse, in which she tries to determine the question of what really happened in a rural Southern county. In November, 2012 in Accomack County, Virginia, the first abandoned house went up in flames. It was a long night, even though no one died.  There were two further fires that night in the area, so firefighters were extremely busy. Over the course of a few months, firefighters were seemingly called out every night as further homes blazed - it was quickly determined that these were the works of an arsonist or arsonists.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was Hesse's attempt to delve into the reasons that an arsonist would commit arson.  It's not just a property crime. In many ways, it's an emotional and psychological crime too - think pyromania or control issues or a desire to please or all three! It also impacted, in this case, the other residents of the community - while the structures that were set on fire were abandoned, the residents lived in fear that the fires could easily spread to their own homes and there was a tremendous amount of anxiety over not knowing who was committing the crimes.

Even though we learn very early on who did it, it is still unclear as to what the motivations were.  The buildings burned were abandoned and the arsonists didn't have insurance policies on them, so money wasn't the motivation. Hesse speculates it was about the intersection of things like poverty, codependence, hope, pride, sexual performance and risk.  The defendants - Charlie and his girlfriend Tonya - led extremely difficult lives. They lived hand to mouth.  Tonya's three children demanded a lot of attention for various reasons (even though all children demand attention).  At the end of the day, while both were ultimately convicted of their crimes, we still don't have a clear answer from them as to their motivations.

I found this book fascinating and very readable.  I couldn't put it down.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ernest Hemingway by Mary Dearborn

I think like every American school attendee, I had to read Hemingway.  I clearly remember reading The Old Man and the Sea in 8th grade, but I didn't read any other Hemingway until recently. I admit, I hated The Old Man and the Sea, in part because I didn't get it.  After reading A Farewell to Arms, and knowing that Hemingway was troubled (at best on a good day) and downright psychotic at his worst, I wanted to learn more about him as a person.

Dearborn's book was very well researched - thorough and exacting - and yet, her story was compelling and her writing style accessible.  I learned a lot, in particular, about Hemingway's relationship with his mother Grace (who he really seemed to dislike and whom he blamed for his father's eventual suicide-that's another thing I learned.  It seems that for four consecutive generations, people in each generation of the Hemingway family committed suicide!). Hemingway was not able to write very much after World War II and his physical and mental health precipitously tanked during that time period. He had everything from high blood pressure to manic episodes and, it sounds like, a psychotic break, that Dearborn attempted to link to a traumatic brain injury that Hemingway received during the Second World War.

Ultimately, Dearborn was successful in describing a man that was tremendously flawed but also tremendously compelling. It was such a great read.  Definitely worth each and every page.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Widow by Fiona Barton

For a debut novel, this one wasn't too bad actually.  It is a mystery in the vein of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, with a female protagonist.

I'm not giving anything away here when I say that at the outset, you learn that a possible kidnapper and child molester has just died. All of England had been riveted by, obsessed even (think OJ here in the States), this trial - mainly because it involved a 2 year old girl and lots of intrigue. In the immediate aftermath of his death, his widow is a a very popular subject for an interview and reporter, Kate Waters, is really trying to get an interview with her - it's popularly believed that the widow knows more than she has let on.

I don't want to get too much into the plot because a novel like this relies upon slowly revealing tidbits of information, like peeling back the various layers of an onion.  The story comes out in pieces, told by the three main players that still remain alive: the widow, the reporter and the main detective on the case.  In a case and story such as this, this particular method of story-telling proves to be very effective. The chapters are short and quick, letting a busy reader take in the story in short bites (which, for me, was perfect!). And somehow, Ms. Barton manages to create a smooth continuum to the story, even though the chapters are told from different perspectives.

I enjoyed the novel because it caused me to think about a few topics:  how much spouses really and truly know about each other, when they find out that knowledge, how they react to it and what they decide to do with that knowledge.   For instance, would I stay with a person that was simply accused of such a thing?  What if I had a gut instinct that it was true but no hard evidence?  After the person's death would I willingly sell what knowledge I had for my own personal gain?  What would it cost me?

This is a deceptively simply written book that challenges the reader to think about all of these things while entertaining at the same time. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson

I've always bee interested in gender studies. When I was in college, the study of gender was called women's studies and I'm happy that the name was changed to gender studies, because really, it's a study of both men's and women's roles and everything in between.  So when I saw this book, I was intrigued.

Anne Helen Peterson is a cultural critic at Buzzfeed and in this book, she creates a catalog of sorts of women who are "unmangeable" in the sense that they do not act in accord with the rules that society has placed on their gender. For instance, she looks at women who have been classified as too strong, too slutty, too shrill, too gross. She has everyone from Serena Williams to Lena Dunham and in each chapter, she dissects why these women have drawn sometimes negative attention, even though they've stayed close enough to the mainstream to be highly successful.

Each chapter starts out the same way - short statement of the problem and then a pretty in depth analysis of the societal norms that they defy. She doesn't push as far as she can, however and in some ways, that's disappointing to me.  At the same time, she can't really be blamed because perhaps she's trying to make her points to as many people as she can and change as many minds as she can. This can't be done if she's considered to be outside the pale.

This is an understated and brilliant book that should be added to your collection.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I now can see why everyone says that Hemingway was inspired to write this novel after serving in World War I.  The unabashed drawing on the author's own life makes the parallels so obvious that a blind man could see it.  Hemingway, like his protagonist, was an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross on the Italian front, was likewise injured and likewise fell in love with the nurse who cared for him while he was convalescing.

We are introduced to his main character, Lt. Henry, just as things are coming to an end in World War I.  Lt. Henry has seen lots of very bad things but wants to continue fighting because that is the only way the ugly badness that he has seen will be eradicated. Other characters feel very much opposed to the war and so the spare dialog that ensues captures the very strong, complicated emotions felt by all sides and conveys them in a style that Hemingway was notorious for and popularized immensely.

I loved how Hemingway glorified the brotherhood and bonds that the soldiers on the battlefield had among each other. The shared experiences of these men drew them together in ways that Hemingway portrayed amazingly well. The affection of these "war brothers" is so palpable you can feel the affection coming off the pages. Lt. Henry meanwhile can never seem to catch a break.  He endures so much hardship in such a short period of time. It's a tremendous book.

Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti

Many know Jessica Valenti as the founder of Feministing , a feminist blog and website.  However, she's also a successful author. This b...