book review

To the Mormon Newlyweds Who Thought the Bellybutton Was Somehow Involved

I got another review up at the Association for Mormon Letters website. Please give it a gander, and check out the book!

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book review, history

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”

book review

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 😉

book review

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.

book review

Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman review
Go Set a Watchman cover

The publication of Go Set a Watchman is a pretty significant one in the scheme of things, and I was able to read it the week it came out. Being a book professional, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about the book.

First and foremost, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: Go Set a Watchman is not a sequelCalling it a sequel is the not-entirely-correct elevator pitch one says to sell the book. (And overhearing a book seller say that to customer kinda made my blood boil a little. Not something to get too worked up about, sure, but still an irritation for me.) Go Set a Watchman is the initial submission Harper Lee made to her publisher, and was not intended to be published 50 odd years ago. It follows some of the characters we met in To Kill a Mockingbird, but there are inconsistencies that stem from revisions and the fact that this book wasn’t going to be published, so why should Harper Lee worry about correcting it.

The way I chose to approach it is thus: It is entirely separate from To Kill a Mockingbird. These are not exactly the same characters we were introduced to before. These are versions of characters that were developed in a different fashion. I do love the story of TKAM, I just wanted to keep this one apart from that book, and look at it in more of an academic sense.

I couldn’t help but think that it was a bit like if someone from the estate of Harper Lee had authorized this as a sequel (Donald McCaig and his Gone With the Wind sequels come to mind). Sequels like that shift perceptions of well-loved characters to have “adapt” to more modern sensibilities and come up with some slightly fantastical plot lines and introduce new characters. Naturally that’s not exactly the case, but it was another way to frame it.

The opening chapters are absolutely DELIGHTFUL. Full of the charm of To Kill a Mockingbird and a really sweet and comforting return to Maycomb. Of course, this is before the big Atticus reveals are made, but just the same, I was giggling my way through the first few chapters. It totally sucked me in. I would have loved it if it even if it had remained a light-hearted story of Jean Louise returning to Alabama from New York for her annual visit and running into typical Small Town South characters and engage in a few meaningful escapades that means she learns something new about herself and returns to New York with a different heart towards her hometown. Or ultimately decides to stay. It would have made for a cute novel, but Harper Lee does not write that simply. No, no — Jean Louise returns home and makes a realization that changes her whole world so much she becomes physically ill and doesn’t know how to move forward.

Ultimately, I felt the way the story played out of how Jean Louise makes these discoveries, deals with them, and how it is reconciled in the end was effective, but needed a little more editorial guidance to really make it zing. Of course, I may come to another conclusion upon a reread. This is definitely a book I will reread at some future date. Likely not as many times as I have or will read To Kill a Mockingbird, but it will be reread. And considering this was only lightly edited from Lee’s original manuscript submission, it’s impressive from a writing perspective.

The part that stood out the most for me was the chapter of Jean Louise’s Coffee that Aunt Alexandra hosts for her during her visit. I think MANY of us have experienced something akin to this. The way Lee wrote the disconnected conversations happening around the room, and Jean Louise’s internal monologue as she listens and then participates in it is fantastic and depressing. People you’ve known your whole life, or are a part of the community, and you can’t stand them, and their history and current events tidbits are all wrong and you can’t even begin to correct them because they wouldn’t believe you anyway because you lived in the CITY or went to college (or lived in the “Mission Field” for some LDS folks) and you obviously just don’t know how it really is. It’s SO AGGRAVATING and discouraging and makes you want to get outta Dodge as fast as possible. Jean Louise’s frustration with the small-minded and misguided women around her hit close to home, and that chapter in and of itself is a real great piece of writing.

The flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood are priceless. Those reminded me of Cheaper By the Dozen hi-jinks and I can definitely see how an editor would say, these are so wonderful, why don’t you write about the kids instead? And the rest is history, really. It was effective storytelling to have Scout tell about life in the 30s in Alabama, and about a few significant events in her life and the town’s history. Those events are barely mentioned in Go Set a Watchman – I can’t recall the Radleys being mentioned at all, and if they were it was in passing.

The ending didn’t entirely sit right with me. The overall feeling of the ending is unsettling, and I think motivations and explanations could have been made clearer with a good editor. (But from what’s been presented, it’s still debatable whether or not Harper Lee really had a hand in allowing this to be published in the first place.) Some have said they would have preferred this be released as an annotated academic book, and I wonder if that may actually happen. Will Lee leave enough of her papers to be used to contribute to an annotated version? It will certainly be dissected for the foreseeable future by many academics and after the initial buzz dies down we might get some productive dialogue going. In the meantime, it’s interesting to me to have this book released as a major publication simply because more people will read it for the very reason. The novel brings up a lot of very uncomfortable questions that are pretty relevant to what’s going on in our society now – even more astounding that it was written almost 60 years ago* – and maybe we can appropriately bring it into the discussion at large of race and inequality. So far my usual book review outlets are preoccupied with the fact that Atticus is not the white knight we know him from To Kill a Mockingbird and not much else is being said… yet.

It’s a good book and I’m glad I read it, and I’m anticipating reading many more in depth and academic reviews and studies of the book moving forward.

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*I’m hosting a To Kill a Mockingbird book and film discussion at my library at the end of the month, so I rewatched the film after many years. I watched it only days after the Charleston church shooting, so having that in my mind while I watched contributed to me sobbing through most of the film. It takes place in the 30s and was written in the 50s, and it is still sadly relevant to our society.

book review, library life

Favorite Books of 2014

Happy New Year!! I rang in the new year by myself – super enjoyable because I watched disaster films! (It’s sort of become a family tradition.) Airport, Airport 1975 (which is one of my favorite films of all time now, simply because it’s so over-the-top and if you grew up watching Airplane! you’ll recognize where the gags came from), and the original Poseidon Adventure. So many famous movie stars in all of them, too!!

Anyway, back to bookish things. In 2014, I read 74 books, for a total of 24,542 pages. 27% male writers, and 63% ebooks. Not too shabby. I set my Goodreads 2015 Reading Challenge to 60 books because if I read more, great! If I don’t, no matter!

This was the first year in a long while where I actually kept track of what I read (honestly, I think the last time was middle school where you could win prizes based on how many books you read), and the first year since becoming a librarian that I read so voraciously! I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, and I’ve dipped my toe into some genres I don’t normally read. I’m looking forward to lots of great reading to come. But I did want to document my picks for 2014:

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Hands down, my favorite book of the year. If anyone asks me for a book recommendation, this is the first one I mention. It’s categorized as science fiction, and is set in a dystopian society of sorts, which had initially turned me off, but the reviews were so good, and the premise so intriguing I threw caution to the wind and dove in. I stayed up very late to finish this book. It’s an intense emotional roller coaster that follows a few different story lines, and will make you sit and think about the book long after you’ve read it. It starts with a famous actor dying on stage during King Lear, and all the characters we follow throughout the rest of the book are connected to that one night. We see what life what like before that night when the pandemic flu came, and what life was like after, up to 20 years later. It’s absolutely fascinating, and heartbreaking, and utterly beautiful.

2. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I had not previously read any Waters, but won this book from a Shelf Awareness giveaway and gave it a try. DUDE. First off – it’s historical fiction, very evocative of the era just after World War I. Not quite Downton Abbey level, but that connection may still draw you in. The relationships in this book are complex and heart-wrenching, and will appeal to many. And there’s a murder in it, and once you reach that point in the book, you can’t put it down. I was told to set aside a weekend to read this, and that was definitely the case. You’ll get sucked in and won’t let up until the very end.

3. As You Wish by Carey Elwes. Like most people, I LOVE The Princess Bride! When I heard Elwes (“my sweet Westley”) was publishing a book about his experiences with Princess Bride, I was overjoyed. Elwes definitely delivers! The book is SO SWEET. You can tell this man had the time of his life making this movie, and loved the cast and crew for enabling this silly little film to be made. He’s utterly charming as he tells about how he got the job, what working with Rob Reiner was like, his relationship with Robin Wright, and a number of fun stories about Andre the Giant. Plus he gets fellow cast and crew to tell short asides about their version of events. An absolute delight to read, and you’ll want to watch the film again immediately after reading.

4. The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow. I read this earlier in the year, and once I finished it I immediately had to write an aunt of mine to tell her she should read it. The MacGuffin (if you will) is an old family quilt. A modern English woman is going through her own daily troubles, and is trying to find out more about this quilt that was passed down in her family. Meanwhile, we alternate to a young English woman in the past who might have connection to the quilt, and we follow her sad life after a very Downton Abbey run-in with a man of means. Not quite a cozy mystery, but if you’re into family history, upstairs/downstairs stories, and mysteries that don’t necessarily involve a murder, this one may be for you.

5. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. This was one of the first books this year that I flipped out over. We follow a young immigrant Russian girl go from rags to riches over the course of her life. She is badly injured after her family comes to America, and is taking in by an Italian family who make gelato. She grows up with the family, learning the business, and gaining shrewd business practices that will help her continue to climb the economic ladder. The woman is like a more humorous Scarlett O’Hara, who finds herself involved with so many 20th century milestones it’s a little like Forrest Gump, too. A hefty book, but a mighty entertaining story of a woman determined to make her life better than what she was handed.

Plenty more on my list of great reads, but these particularly stood out, and were ones I found myself recommending to friends, family, and library patrons alike. Onward in 2015!