1. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin. I would’ve liked to see more race analysis but Grandin does a good job telling the story of Henry Ford’s failed attempt to create a model midwestern city in the Amazon. Ford wasn’t a big fan of experts, so ended up making a lot of mistakes like building houses unsuited to the jungle climate, planting rubber with no idea of its environmental needs, and hiring staff that used company money on drunken escapades. The anecdotes are entertaining and it gives insight into the history of Ford and the rubber industry internationally.
2. Myths of Gender by Anne Fausto-Sterling. Fausto-Sterling wrote this book in 1985, although I read the second edition released in 1992. Even though it’s dated it provides a scientific basis to critique research on sex differences. Fausto-Sterling is a biologist who believes there are some innate biological differences between the sexes, but believes most of the scientific research on the subject to be flawed. In particular, she criticizes the belief that men are naturally smarter and better at math, the belief that men are naturally more aggressive due to hormones, and that menstruation and menopause are “diseases” that effect all women similarly. While researchers in many other disciplines have also tackled these issues it’s interesting to see someone fight science with science.
3. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up this book from a discount rack at Powell’s. Sarah Vowell’s history of the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony manages to be quirky, moving, funny, and thorough. She critiques a view of colonization that ignores the violence done to Aboriginal peoples and uses historical writings and modern politics to give us a thoughtful exploration of what it means to see America as a Puritan nation.
4. Manhood in America: A Cultural History by Michael Kimmel. Some feminist scholars argue we don’t need any more men’s history since mainstream historical research has always revolved around men. While Sociologist Michael Kimmel somewhat agrees with that statement, he sees that what’s been lacking is a history of masculinity. I highly recommend Manhood in America, in which Kimmel posits there have been different types of ideal masculinity struggling for prescience in the US since the American Revolution. Using histories of literature, psychoanalysis, politics, and health, he argues the type of the “self-made man”, who brings himself up from nothing to accumulate wealth and prestige, is the type to which modern men are expected to aspire. In the end he argues for a more “democratic masculinity” that does not base its identity on exclusion via homophobia or sexism. If you’re going to read any book on this list, make it this one.
5. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel. I was so excited to find another book by Kimmel after Manhood in America, but I was kind of let down by Guyland, which explores the lives of men aged 16 to 26 in America. Kimmel calls the territory these men inhabit “Guyland”: a social arena in which guys are forced to constantly prove themselves as men while being suspended between childish buddy culture and adult responsibilities. While I appreciated Kimmel’s arguments about the amount of gender policing, I’m not convinced that it’s unique to the age group he looked at. Further, a lot of the social pressures he discussed, such as guys feeling stuck and unable to forge a good career for themselves, I don’t believe are that gender-specific.
6. The Pyramid: The First Wallander Cases by Henning Mankell. On to fiction. The Pyramid is the last book in the Wallander series by Henning Mankell, but takes the reader back to Wallander’s life before the first novels. I’ve now read the entire series and while I enjoyed The Pyramid, the fact that it was broken into short stories made it more obviously formulaic. It made me realize I’m not sure if there’s a Wallander story where the finding of the body isn’t followed by a comment on the weather, along the lines of: “Wallander got into his car. The fog rolled off the embankment. It was four-oh-two in the morning on September 16.” (not an actual quote).
7. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. My step-sisters got me into Gary Shteyngart when they gave me his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, for Christmas a few years ago. Super Sad True Love Story has the same sense of wacky satire, this time looking at a world in which a technology-obsessed America is on the verge of economic collapse. In the midst of the crisis is set the love story of anachronistic Lenny Abramov (he still reads paper books!) and the secretly vulnerable yet outwardly cruel Eunice Park. What I found interesting was how Shteyngart, consciously or not, visualized a hyper-objectification of (particularly) women as part of the increasing use of technology and obsession with youth and immortality.
That’s what I’ve been reading over the past few months. Next up is Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese. What are you reading?