It’s been almost 4 months since the spring book list and my reading has been piling up, so it’s time for another list of super-short book reviews. Got any suggestions for books I should be reading over the next 4 months? What have you been reading? Comment below!
Being a fan of weird science books, I read Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers earlier this year and was immediately interested in reading everything else she’d ever written. Bonk takes you through decades of bizarre experiments attempting to illuminate the science of orgasm, erection, lubrication, desire, and all other aspects of sex. Oddly enough, I found it made me more uncomfortable than reading Stiff, namely because it was more unnerving for me to think about penis surgery on live humans than it was anything happening to cadavers. But Roach treats the subject matter with her trademark candor and wit so I was able to unpack some of my own assumptions and come out smarter and more open-minded than before.
Around the same time as my Mary Roach quest I also decided I had to catch up on the Sarah Vowell books I hadn’t read, since I loved The Wordy Shipmates and to a lesser extent, Assassination Vacation. Unfamiliar Fishes is Vowell’s latest book, which explores the history of Hawaii from the beginning of visits by Christian misisonaries to annexation by the US. As usual, Vowell helps us to see the violence and tragedy of colonization while also showing the nuanced histories and motivations of the colonized and colonizers. She also makes interesting linkages to the present-day war in Iraq and how the arguments used to justify Bush’s invasion were similar to those used during annexation of Hawaii.
I checked off the second-last book on my Sarah Vowell list with The Partly Cloudy Patriot, which I unfortunately hadn’t realized was a collection of essays, not a longer historical narrative like her other books. I did enjoy it but prefer a more in-depth look at issues than she was able to give in her brief accounts of Presidential libraries, engaging youth in politics, 9/11, and parental Thanksgiving visits. If you like Vowell’s stuff and you’re looking for something more easily read in short sittings, this would probably be a good book, even though some of the subject matter around Clinton and the first Bush term feels a little dated.
I was a little skeptical reading a book on comic book super-heroines and feminism written by a guy, but Mike Madrid did a pretty good job outlining the history and demonstrating how super-heroines still have a long way to go to reach comic book equality. It was especially great for someone like me who hasn’t read a lot of comic books but felt like she needed an historical and feminist overview in order to beef up her feminerd credentials and understand more about the genre. Madrid takes us through the history of comic book super-heroines both well known and obscure from the early days of Sheena: Queen of the Jungle to today’s incarnations of Wonder Woman and the women of the X-Men. I particularly liked how he linked changes in super-heroine costume, style, and attitude to pop culture changes and historical events and trends.
Mary Barton had been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years since I watched the miniseries Cranford with Judi Dench and decided I had to read everything Gaskell had written. Set in Manchester in the 1830s and 1840s, Mary Barton is one of Gaskell’s earlier books, more of a “social fiction”, concerned with the problems of the working class more than Cranford or Wives and Daughters. But interestingly enough, I found Gaskell took a defensive tone in Mary Barton, in which she almost apologized for even portraying the thoughts of the trade unionists. Her general attitude seemed to be, “well we know they don’t understand the positions the masters are in, but can you really blame them when they’re starving?” Gaskell’s attempt at creating a strong female character in Mary was also only half-successful as Mary goes on a brave mission to save her lover from being executed, only to lapse into a long-lasting delirium from all the stress and anxiety. In Mary Barton, Gaskell gives with one hand and takes away with the other. For a more balanced novel with a stronger female protagonist I recommend Gaskell’s North and South.
Wolf Hall is an epic recounting of the first two marriages of King Henry VIII, told primarily through the point-of-view of his one-time chief secretary Thomas Cromwell. Everything about it makes you feel its epic scale, from the extensive family trees laid out at the beginning to the book’s printing on heavy paper with large margins, which makes a 647-page book feel like it’s over 1000 pages. But reading it didn’t feel like an effort as Mantel draws you in to her unique painting of the characters, which you’d think would be hard to do in a new and creative way. One of the most interesting pieces is how Mantel explores the nuances of the relationships between Cromwell and the King, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. And somehow despite the classic subject matter Mantel manages to fit it into her own modern structure.
More on the weird history/science books. I was lucky enough to tune into an NPR interview with Holly Tucker a few months ago where she described her research of the first attempts to transfuse blood, the research that led to her book. Tucker lays out the story of a young French scientist whose attempts to gain fame by transfusing animal blood into humans led to resentment in the British and French scientific communities, including an eventual attempt to frame him for the murder of one of his patients. In the NPR interview, she talked about how she went to great lengths to figure out details from the clothes the people wore, the transportation they used, and the businesses that were located around their houses, and this attention to detail is certainly evident in the book, which at times feels as involving as a novel. If you’re interested in history, science, and/or medical ethics, this is a great read.
This account of a doctor and former US Civil War surgeon institutionalized for murder, who ended up becoming one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary is another great read for non-fiction lovers. The book revolves around the relationship of the doctor (W.C. Minor) to the dictionary’s main editor, Dr. James Murray, and gives a touching account of the friendship that developed between the two men around their shared passion for words. But what I took away from it was the background on dictionary-writing prior to the OED, and the equally interesting discussion of changing historical attitudes towards mental illness and therapy.