You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe

Alexis Coe begins her biography of George Washington by stating that she had looked over her shelf of previously published biographies of Washington and noted they were all written by men. And as soon as she pointed that out I was even more determined to read what she had to say because gaining a woman’s perspective on one of the greatest Americans would be of particular interest to me. This is one of the reasons I try to read widely – gaining new perspectives on what some might consider tried-and-true or even dry topics. I gained a lot of insight into not only Washington’s life but also in how we have traditionally viewed the Founders and how we can adjust that lens to not only learn more about them but also make them more relatable and real to more Americans.

This is the first Washington biography I’ve read since I was in grade school, and that one included the apocryphal anecdote about the cherry tree. I have not read many of what one might refer to as the “dad” biographies about the Founders. (At least in my family, my dad got one of these every Christmas for awhile and he would read them and they would be on his shelf looking all imposing.) I did read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and David McCullough’s John Adams, and those were both a direct result of being obsessed with Hamilton the Musical. (Lin-Manuel Miranda is a godsend, let me tell you!) I lived in Northern Virginia growing up, visiting Jamestown and Williamsburg and D.C., and have a basic understanding of the Revolutionary War and early American politics. One thing this biography did was put things in a context I could easily grasp without weighing me down with more information than I’m able to process. I know I can find other sources for those deep dives about certain battles, but I’m reading this book to learn about Washington the man!

It reminded me of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, which I listened to on audiobook, and therefore had the pleasure of hearing Nick Offerman be George Washington shouting, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” Lafayette in the Somewhat United States was also written by a woman, and perhaps having that irreverent outlook, and featuring colorful anecdotes about many of the Founders, contributed to my enjoyment. Like how *seeing* Shakespeare is a better experience than merely *reading* Shakespeare, having actors in my head who have played Washington and the other characters in history helped me to grasp the scenarios and feel the humanity. So yeah, Chris Jackson was singing in my head in parts of this book, Nick Offerman appeared in others, and even Jason O’Mara from Sons of Liberty helped me along. (Side note: Sons of Liberty was way not accurate as a miniseries, but at least was entertaining.)

This Smithsonian interview with Coe helped to pique my interest in reading the book, in particular this quote, on how many prior biographies talk about Washington:

And the way that they would describe them, “He gripped the saddle with his thunderous thighs.” It was a little inappropriate, sometimes read like a romance novel. And I couldn’t really figure out why. Did they just really love his thighs? Were there a lack of great thighs in early America?

Coe frequently mentions “the thigh men” in her narrative, referring to past biographers and historians who tend to have a reverential or even worshipful view of the Founding Fathers (not necessarily the Founding Mothers) to the point where these men are more übermensch than real people with real foibles and characteristics that we all face. She talked about Washington as a man who had magnetic charisma and was a devoted father figure, a man with a seemingly complicated relationship with his mother, and one who suffered from both financial and fraternal losses. She goes at length to describe Washington’s thoughts on slavery, on the slaves who were closest to him, and how their families were torn apart for business reasons. This latter point is one that is dived into more and more with our Founders, clouding our image of them as saintly men.

One story that particularly drew me in was how, during the Revolutionary War, Washington learned of many accounts of rape on American women by British soldiers, and went against the usual convention at the time by encouraging these accounts to be reported and publicized.

Washington let it be known that he wanted horrific stories “on the subject of the Enemy’s brutality” collected and sent to him. […] Accounts about the “infamous mercenary ravagers” were then pieced together and printed in congressional reports, placed with no less care or intention than troops on the battlefield.

As someone who has sought out more women’s stories during early American conflicts, learning that the general, in his way, heard women and sought to fight the injustice is something of a comfort. It may have been to further ostracize the British soldiers, but it still gave victimized women some amount of justice in a society that wouldn’t necessarily provide that.

So if you’re interested in learning more about one of the most important first Americans, and don’t want to spend months reading a “thigh man” biography where you lose track of where you are in the person’s life, I highly recommend Alexis Coe’s entertaining and enjoyable read on good ole George.

Favorite Books of 2019

Being a librarian and former bookseller, I’m a voracious reader who tries to read widely to try out different genres and styles of reading. Here are a few of the standouts from my 2019 reading list.

This was a book that seemed tailor-made for me. As a one-time huge fan of VH1’s Behind the Music, I was obsessed with the oral history format, and could NOT put this book down. I have read many rock star (and rock groupie) biographies and memoirs, and this read just like so many of those true stories. Jenkins Reid did her research and it shows. I read the ebook for this, but I hear the audiobook is a phenomenal way to experience it as well.

I am absolutely a HUGE fan of Queer Eye. I was a fan of the first iteration of it, and the update is incredibly sweet and lovely. I could not resist getting to read Tan’s story! Being a Utah resident currently, I loved learning that Tan calls Salt Lake home (and I know folks who see him at Harmon’s or the gym or just out and about and I’m so jealous lol). He has charming origin story of becoming the person he is now, and all the struggles and adventures he had along the way. It’s a quick read and loads of fun, and great for anyone who feels they’re just a little more odd than most.

I cannot stress to you how much I love Alyssa Cole and her Reluctant Royals series. I wasn’t previously much of a romance reader, and Cole was a big reason of why I now read a ton of them. Her characters are incredibly fun and real and experience very relatable stumbles and challenges. Her heroines are strong and nerdy and truly adorable. Her heroes are super cute and not intimidated by the fabulous women in their lives. These are the kinds of fantasies you imagine can be real. This is the third in the series, and worth getting to!

While I still had access to HBO after Game of Thrones ended, I devoured this series based on a real woman named Anne Lister and her diary that wasn’t decoded until recently. (She wrote it in CODE!!) The way I describe the book and show to people is “it’s Pride & Prejudice with lesbians.” That wasn’t the term used in the 1830s, but that’s what we view them as now. Anne took charge of her life in a very different and unique way, and wanted to settle down with a wife like any other landowner. So the book (and show) is so much like a novel of manners that we associate with Jane Austen, following her exploits, mundane tasks of running her family’s estate, and trying to woo the pretty (and wealthy) lady who lives nearby. I was very captivated by it all.

This book has stuck with me since I read it months ago. The writer relates the stories of three different women who experience love and heartbreak in three very different ways. The one that resonated with me the most was the woman who had an affair with a teacher in high school and has to revisit the experience years later as an adult. I can see how this book might upset some readers, but getting to read about some very deep and complicated emotions that these women experienced and had to justify was an exercise in and of itself.

This was a HIGHLY anticipated release. I didn’t read Handmaid’s Tale until fairly recently, and the show is a little obsession of mine. So I was thrilled that Atwood was going to update the story of Gilead for us, though slightly apprehensive that it would be a money grab and be unsatisfying. For me, it was an excellent addition to the story. Gaining further insight into the women of Gilead and how the outside world sees it was wild and scary and still relevant to political narratives around the world today. This filled in a lot of questions I had, and I appreciate that the author gave us a great follow-up to her story.

I have not read much indie publications, and have had a bit of a snobby outlook on it for awhile, but this is a book that helped change that perspective. I now know that I LOVE small town romance stories, especially if they are Southern as well. This was a comfortable and enjoyable read that made me excited to read anything else this author publishes, and look for any other similar romances. And when the heroine is an over 30-something getting her life back on track after divorce, I just had to root for her the whole time to get her truly happy ending.

Good and Mad

A 2017 Pew survey found that nearly six in ten women said they were paying increased attention to politics since the 2016 election, a greater share than men.

I’m for sure one of those six.

I never considered myself a political person until the 2016 election. I barely paid attention to government matters most of the time, and didn’t like to disclose political views because many of my friends were very passionate about politics and I feared their wrath if I opined on anything when I felt so uninformed. So I generally kept my mouth shut. Until Trump.

I felt so defeated after the election I was in a bit of a stupor the day after. I was living in a very red area and was extremely grateful no library patrons came to gloat – but those who had voted for Hillary had a look about them and we could nod to each other and know that there was someone in that town who understood. And reading Good and Mad was like an extended version of that nod.

In this book, I felt my feelings were finally articulated and distilled to a point that could be explained to others who didn’t feel them the same way. I was good and mad. I was bewildered. I was angry. And the activist movement that came out of that anger helped to keep me sane during the first part of the 45 administration. I had a purpose to give that anger to. I could commiserate with people who felt similarly, and together we could work to express our dissatisfaction to others in a productive way.

“Grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston

Selfie with my handmade pussy hat at the Atlanta Women’s March, January 2017.

I can’t fully express the joy I felt participating in the Women’s March in Atlanta. It was so incredibly cathartic, and gave me the opportunity to meet some lovely women I carpooled up with who lived in our small Georgia town and were all so grateful to know there were others like us there. I marched with a woman who had marched in Selma back in the 60s and it was a privilege to link arms with her. There were so many of us we couldn’t hear John Lewis speak, but we knew he was there and that was enough. I’d been able to knit some pussy hats and got them to some of the other women in the group and they were so pleased to have a handmade souvenir of the event.

Some members of my family, and some of my friends who lean conservative, did not understand why I participated in that march (and the March for Science and the March For Our Lives, and presumably others in future) and I found myself getting very heated about it. How could they NOT see why I participated?!

It was comforting to read this book and not only feel that my anger was vindicated and not unusual, but to feel that righteous anger bubble up in me again. The author stresses that it’s better to have that anger released in productive ways:

Having had the rare and privileged experience of having had my anger taken seriously, valued on its merits, I no longer believe that it is anger that is hurting us, but rather the system that penalizes us for expressing it, that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it. That’s what’s making us sick; that’s what’s making us feel crazy, alone; that’s why we’re grinding our teeth at night.

We can’t keep that anger inside us. We have to allow it to come out. We have to express it, articulate it. Women are automatically called crazy or hysterical when they show their anger, they are seen as unhinged. But women have valid reasons for their anger, and they can use their anger to not only help themselves but others who are also seen as unhinged for being unsatisfied and frustrated with their situation. It was invigorating to read this, and I think it’s not only a good book for people of today who need help deciphering their anger, but also for future times when people want to understand how the movement unveiled itself during this time.

Reading Habits

I just finished reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I have an anecdote for Ayn Rand from my bookselling days: I worked at a chain bookstore in Utah, and one summer there were a large number of teenagers fresh out of high school or entering senior year who came in asking for either The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. It happened so much that I finally started asking if it was a summer reading assignment. Nope, these kids were simply interested in tackling Rand. It was a little weird.

But I’ve been curious to read Rand ever since. There’s a joke on the internet that you should never date someone who says they like Atlas Shrugged, so when a dear friend of mine mentioned that he loved The Fountainhead I had to laugh but be relieved it wasn’t Atlas Shrugged. But I also didn’t want to judge Rand until I had given her a shot. And what I found was that I really enjoyed reading The Fountainhead! I totally fell for the characters and got wrapped up in the story and found ways to relate to it that I didn’t think I would find. Granted, I didn’t always get the Randian philosophy that she hits you over the head with – either I didn’t follow the logic or I didn’t agree with it – but for me that didn’t take away from the story and the reading of it. And now I can say that I’ve read Rand and actually kind of liked it.

I had another friend tell me recently that I was one of the most widely read people he knows. I think a lot of that had to do with me reading enough academic books that he has also read, but it still made me feel good. When I was in library school I took a Popular Fiction class where we read a different genre every week. I read Amish romance, urban fiction, Harlequin romance, and others I normally wouldn’t have read. Our instructor was a local public librarian who was PASSIONATE about making sure that as librarians we follow the law of library science that every person has their book and every book has its reader. We should read widely to know what our patrons may like. And I took that advice to heart.

At my second public library job in Georgia I was in charge of purchasing all the adult fiction (to clarify: fiction for adults as opposed to teens or children, not the X-rated stuff. People have gotten confused). I started to participate heavily in LibraryReads and got a few reviews published on their site, and tried reading outside my usual comfort zone to participate even more. I discovered that while I had never considered myself a romance reader, I tried out a few that I soon discovered that I LOVED a few romance genre writers and wanted to read any series they came out with. (Currently I’m in love with Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series. Like, I love it so much that when I hear of a new installment I jump for joy in my desk chair.) I aim to read at least 50 books a year so I can squeeze in not only the titles I want to read but others that are different and might be of interest to others that I can recommend. And I might even find a new genre or author or story that I can love and enjoy.

What all this boils down to is that I recognize that while I may not enjoy certain genres and kinds of books, those genres have their fans. Don’t ridicule. What matters is that the person is reading and has found something they enjoy that takes them out of real life for a time. Taking some time to read outside of your comfort zone with give you a chance to see what others may like and allow you to read in their shoes so to speak, and you might even find that you love a genre you weren’t aware of before, and how fun is that??

PhD Student Meets Hitler

I’ve been reading Travelers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd, which compiles the journals and letters and other observations of people who visited Germany starting in the 1920s and the Weimar Republic and into the Hitler regime. I find this a totally fascinating topic because so many people vacationed or conducted business in Germany in the 30s and had no idea how dark it was and would continue to be. Many of these visitors exposed their own prejudices and racist attitudes towards Jews and felt sympathetic towards the Nazis. And sometimes, despite any misgivings they had about the Nazis, they got swept up in the pageantry and cult behavior of the Nazi party. I may blog again about this book as I keep reading it because there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here.

One of the stories that popped out to me was that of Milton S. J. Wright, who at the time of the rise of the Nazi party was a PhD student of economics at Heidelberg University, and was lucky enough to have an audience with Adolf Hitler himself… and what made this all the more eye-opening is that Milton Wright was black.

Continue reading “PhD Student Meets Hitler”

Hate Read Book Club continuation

So last year I was feeling down in the dumps (you know, that whole election thing) and needed something to do as an outlet for my snark. So I decided to start what I called the Hate Read Book Club – and it is what it says on the tin. You hate read a book. What’s a hate read? Reading a book you know you’re not going to like and do it for entertainment value. LOL. Yeah, not for everyone, but I was raised watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I’ve been enjoying bad art for a long time now.

So I started with This Victorian Life by Sarah Chrisman. You may know her as the more famous half of the duo known on the internet as That Victorian Couple. I explain them a little in this Tumblr post. I started doing the Hate Read Book Club on my Tumblr, and got a few chapters in, and then I got a new job and all my spare time was taken and I haven’t revisited it since. Until now…

So I’ve decided to pick it up again, but post it here on this blog. Let’s see if I can get through the whole book this time! You can catch up with the previous posts here:

This Victorian Life: Introduction
This Victorian Life: Chapter 1
This Victorian Life: Chapters 2 & 3

Now we’ll continue with This Victorian Life: Chapters 4 & 5:Continue reading “Hate Read Book Club continuation”

What I’m Reading

Though my day job is being a librarian, I don’t get asked much what I’m currently reading. It’s actually a point of annoyance for me, since I rather enjoy discussing books with people. So I’ll use the fact that I have a blog I’m not doing much with to post some of my thoughts of my reading pile.

Yesterday I finished reading two books, and both put me in a very pensive mood, though both were dramatically different.

The first book I finished (after picking at it over the course of a week because the week was pretty crazy) was The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon. I have always had a fascination with the Klan as a topic. I’ve lived in two areas where the Klan was active (northern Georgia and northern Indiana) and the closest brush I’ve had with them is the time I was in a production of The Laramie Project at Purdue North-Central, and the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance had been told through family members with connections to the Klan that the Klan would protest the production. Ultimately they did not, but it was still a troubling time for a few weeks.

Gordon’s book focuses on the second iteration of the Klan in the early 20th century. The original Klan had come out of Reconstruction era bigotry and white male anger, but had died out over the last couple of decades after the Civil War. The resurgence of the Klan found it far more organized and ritualized (this is when the infamous Kloran was written), and built out of a response to the romantic interpretation of it in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation film. It was presented as more of a fraternal order that would benefit members’ social and business standing (so not as secretive in many respects), as well as being a front to support white supremacy and push back immigrants and anyone not their version of “white” (African-Americans were naturally the main group discriminated against, but this Klan was anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic as well). I know enough about this revival of the Klan to know that it fell from prominence after only a few years due to a great deal of corruption at many levels of the organization, mostly notably that of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson.

My big takeaway from the book, and one of the reasons I picked it up, was learning about the women’s activities with the Klan at this time period. A lot of recruitment was done through churches (many Protestant ministers were Klan members), and as such women’s Klan involvement was in a way an extension of any church auxiliary.  Oddly enough, the women of the Klan were supportive of women’s suffrage – a progressive cause you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a hate organization at the time. Though the Klan was initially ambivalent or a little against women having the vote, once women did get the vote it was seen as a boon for white supremacy – wives could help vote their causes into local government.

The book mostly focused on chapters of the Klan in northern states, which was interesting to be sure, but I would have appreciated some more insight in how the Klan in the southern states was at the time. (Other books I’m interested in reading on this topic in general are Blazing Crosses in Zion and Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s.)

I also read a novel in a day, which I don’t always have the pleasure of doing often. The book was Vox by Christina Dalcher, which comes out in August (a privilege of being a librarian is I have access to digital advance reader copies of books well before their publication date). This is a dystopian novel that I identified very quickly as a The Handmaid’s Tale readalike (I’m obsessed with and horrified by the TV show, but loved the book beforehand) in which a theocratic government has taken charge of the country, and women are kicked out of the workforce and are only allowed to speak 100 words a day. Every woman has a counter on her wrist that keeps track of her words, and gives a shock if she goes over.

This was a fast-paced read, with definite influences of our current administration and Handmaid’s Tale plots. Perhaps at times a little too fast-paced, but I could easily suspend my beliefs for the sake of the story.  Jean McClellan, the main character, is complex and imperfect, and that kind of made me love her quite quickly. I understood the flaws and believed them. She had the politically-active friend who warned her what was to come, and she was blind and privileged enough to ignore the signs. She’s a brilliant scientist who is suddenly thrust into a role and reality that takes away much of the joy in her life, and she doesn’t know how to fix it until an opportunity falls in her lap that gives her a glimpse of what is to come, and also a chance to make a difference.

I finished this book and felt a great need to dig out my pussy hat, strap on my Chuck Taylors, pin on my “Love Trumps Hate” button and get marching again because I DO NOT WANT any of these dystopians to happen in any shape or form. We see shades of our current reality in Vox, in Handmaid’s Tale, in Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and it’s chilling and disconcerting. I don’t want to be bold or blind enough to say that we will for sure avoid the fall from grace we see in our fiction worlds, but it does give one pause and a desire to use that fire in the belly and do something about it.

Needless to say, I need something a little light-hearted to follow this all up with, so I may give Hope Never Dies: An Obama/Biden Mystery from Quirk Books a try to cleanse the palate 😉

Wild Wild Country

Have you seen the recent smash Netflix docu-series Wild Wild Country?

Because I got totally obsessed with it shortly after it was released and binged it twice in a row. And then I listened to the soundtrack on Spotify for a week straight. And then I had a real keen desire to read the memoirs of people who had lived in Rajneeshpuram and picked up Ma Anand Sheela’s memoir Don’t Kill Him! and sped through it.

To sum up: Bhagwan Rajneesh was a spiritual leader from India who brought a large group of his followers to a ranch in Oregon to start a commune called Rajneeshpuram and the surrounding little town of Antelope with it’s white middle-aged/retired Christians WAS NOT HAPPY and then the cult is armed to the teeth and accused of attempted murder. Sheela was Bhagwan’s private secretary for years, was one of the primary interviewees in the documentary, and ended up serving prison time from her activities related to Rajneeshpuram.

Sheela’s book has a weird timeline – the first part is her leaving Bhagwan and Rajneeshpuram and the legal entanglements and prison stint that followed, and then the book backtracks in the second part to when she first met Bhagwan and the development of her involvement with him. If I hadn’t seen Wild Wild Country first I’m not sure I would have been able to follow the storyline and probably would have dropped the book.

Sheela is unrepentant of her time with Bhagwan and the scandals that erupted in Rajneeshpuram that led to her leaving the commune. She maintains that it was part of her spiritual growth and almost inevitable that she would leave Bhagwan. She barely touches on the fact that there were numerous legal entanglements, like the poisoning of many people in nearby city The Dalles and interest in the group’s finances and handling of immigration of its followers, that may have prompted her to leave.

What you do get a clear sense of is that Sheela still loves Bhagwan, still finds solace in his teaches, which is interesting and adds a complexity to their relationship that I don’t think she could properly explain on her own, but I’d love for someone smarter than me to look into that. I do think there’s sincerity on her part, since now she runs an assisted living facility for special-needs adults in Switzerland and you gotta give the woman props for that.

Her memoir probably could have used another run with an editor, but that also means there’s a rawness to it that is refreshing.

At the end of the Netflix documentary one of the other followers of Bhagwan said he was tasked with writing a book giving Bhagwan’s perspective on events, and I’m hoping that becomes a reality soon since I will eat that up.