In between work and feminist blogging and keeping up with geek culture, I’m a huge bookworm. Here’s the latest in my series of posts of short feminist book reviews (the reviews are feminist, not necessarily the books).
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry
Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen is a book that covers a wide ground: black American women’s misrecognition by society and how that misrecognition affects their subjectivity and participation as citizens. Luckily, Harris-Perry’s framework is really helpful and she does a great job weaving together analysis of literature, poetry and film with findings from academic and census research with actual black women’s voices, stories, and experiences.
She carefully balances discussing problematic aspects of how some black women buy in (to varying degrees) to the popular stereotypes of the “Mammy”, “Sapphire”/”Angry Black Woman”, or the “Jezebel” without denying women agency. This particularly comes out in the nuanced way she talks about how Michelle Obama has been stereotyped and has both resisted and embraced certain stereotypical traits. What I most appreciated was how broadly Harris-Perry defines “politics”
and citizenship – showing the many ways in which black women practice politics in their personal lives simply through trying to navigate in an environment Harris-Perry likens to a “crooked room”.
Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow
Another MSNBC host book on a very different topic. Rachel Maddow does a good job putting together an accessible and interesting look at how US military policy has changed since the country’s founding: from a situation where war was meant to be rare and difficult to declare to now, where it’s almost constant and its political fallout is lessened through the use of contractors and extreme interpretations of the President’s executive power. My only critique of this book is that it could have been even longer. I appreciated the historical walk-through but there wasn’t enough for me on the current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wonder if the book had come out later, now that the issue of drones is more public if that would have been different. As it was, I think the book was persuasive but almost lacked a sense of urgency for the need to resolve the problem.
Murder! Forensic Medicine! Jazz-Age! New York! Basically I was sold by the time I was half-way through the title. I wasn’t disappointed: Blum’s book combined creative non-fiction about science and history with the intrigue of true crime in a way that made it every way as suspenseful as a good mystery novel.
The Poisoner’s Handbook is primarily about the work of two men: Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, who revolutionized the way deaths were investigated in the United States and practically created the field of forensic medicine as we know it today. Coming into a system that was rife with corruption and populated by political appointees with little to no relevant skill, Norris and Gettler managed to carve out a space for scientific rigour and public health advocacy through the Prohibition years and beyond.
Blum dedicates each chapter to a particular type of poison, looking at the cases that confronted the New York Medical Examiner’s office and how tests were developed to be able to isolate those poisons in corpses. The book links social, economic and public health concerns as it takes you through cases of industrial alcohol poisoning during Prohibition to cases of industrial poisoning such as befell the Radium Girls and leaded gasoline workers in New Jersey. Finally, high-profile individual cases including those surrounding “America’s Lucrezia Borgia”, Mary Frances Creighton, give the book more of a page-turner-y, true crime feel.
The Emperor of All Maladies is a fascinating and monumental walk through the “biography” of cancer, including a look at historical understandings of the disease; trends in the science of its treatment, prevention and marketing; and stories of the author’s work with cancer patients in the modern context. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book covers centuries but the book doesn’t feel like a chore to read. His use of metaphors from literature interwoven with the stories of patients, oncologists and cancer scientists paints vivid pictures for the audience. Mukherjee does a good job bringing us into the world of cancer, including explaining all the scientific language that comes with it in a way that doesn’t feel like a chore to learn.
Mukherjee’s background is in medicine, so it makes sense that he covers in detail debates around different kinds of treatment like the history of increasingly radical mastectomies to treat breast cancer. However, he doesn’t really get into what changes have occurred as a result of more and more research now being done by private companies rather than public institutions. He also doesn’t delve into the debates around marketing cancer culture today, such as concerns about pinkwashing products to make companies appear to care about fighting breast cancer.
At any rate, in spite of the weighty subject matter the book ends up being inspiring rather than depressing. The immensity of the research Mukherjee did allowed him to draw some insights that are helpful for our society moving forward in the continuing struggle to beat cancer. I’m stoked for the 6-part Ken Burns documentary that’s expected to be out in 2015.
The Hidden Child, The Drowning and The Lost Boy by Camilla Läckberg
Earlier this spring I read Läckberg’s Fjällbacka mystery novels 5, 6 and 7. I was really not a fan of 5 (The Hidden Child) or 6 (The Drowning), although I’m still pretty attached to the main characters: true crime writer Erica Falck and her pretty progressive (debatably even feminist) husband Patrick Hedstrom. The problem with The Hidden Child was that the ending was too predictable. By contrast, the ending of The Drowning was too much of a twist, especially with the massive cliffhanger laid right on top of the bizarre solution to the crime.
Läckberg redeems herself somewhat in The Lost Boy, although having to resolve the cliffhanger from the last book I think hurt the plot. I really appreciated Lackberg’s attempt to address the issue of domestic violence against women in this book.I think it helped readers better understand why some victims go back to abusers and the financial, legal, and emotional complications many victims face when they do try to flee their abuser.
Another masterpiece from Hilary Mantel. Like her first book on the reign of Henry VIII from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is carefully crafted and manages to tell a historical tale with an atmosphere that feels authentic but is also accessible to a modern audience. There are several points in both where you find yourself reading a sentence and having to pause to admire Mantel’s inspired choice of words.
Bring Up the Bodies seemed to me to flow more easily than the longer and heavier Wolf Hall. Part of that is Mantel’s choice not to switch in and out of first-person narration. For some reason it felt almost dream-like. If you like historical fiction that’s full of intrigue, doubt and personal vendettas while also being just truly a work of art, I’d highly recommend this.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I flew through this magical tale of a childless couple in 1920s Alaska who take in a little girl they may have created out of snow. Ivey’s creates finely-drawn pictures of all the characters so you feel like you can truly inhabit their thoughts and feelings. In particular, the beginning section told from the perspective of the childless woman, Mabel, draws you in right away and makes you care about her emotional conflicts.
The novel revolves around a central question, regularly reinforced, about whether a sad story is inevitable or whether we have the power to change the ending to make it a joyful one. My only complaint is that the central question and the connections to the Snow Child fairy tale I think were almost overdrawn for readers, to the point that I just found the book not quite challenging enough.
But hey – there’s a trailer for this book: