I’m currently working through a bunch of book reviews and blog posts, but, in the meantime, I decided to pass along some of what I’ve been reading this week:
An article by George Saunders, a reporter for The New Yorker, is the best breakdown I’ve seen so far of why it has been so hard to get a handle on who is supporting Trump and why.
Drama continues in my beloved Trekdom…from George Takei being upset over Sulu being gay in “Star Trek: Beyond,” to the ever continuing Axanar lawsuit, and finally, while not that controversial, I would love to know what they’ve been smoking over at Hallmark to make “Kirk and the Salt Vampire” one of their Keepsake Ornament offerings for 2016.
A physician has added his theory to the long list of retrospective diagnoses of Mary Todd Lincoln–in this case, pernicious anemia caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency. While it’s definitely one of those theories that can never be definitively proven, I find this one compelling. I figure it’s this or she was bipolar.
A blogger named Kristen M has been working her way through a list of the Top 100 Chapter Books and recently read the Little House books. I loved her commentary, especially as she echoes a lot of what I thought when I tried to read Little House in the Big Woods to my daughter. While I remembered the books for their portrayal of a loving family and the descriptions of food and music…what struck me as an adult was the racism, violence, and harsh moral code that the Ingalls inculcated in their children (or, that Rose Wilder Lane wrote into her mother’s stories).
Heather Havrilesky knocked it out of the park again with her Ask Polly advice column–this week’s article focused on a young woman who is trying to reconcile her self-image and childhood values while working in what sounds like some high profile industries (or at least populated by the upper class). Havrilesky also has a book coming out this month that I’m looking forward to reading.
I wanted to pass on this link to a recent post on Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog. In, it, author S.L. Huang discusses the trope of “Manpain,” where the focus of a story centers on the angst and suffering of the male protagonist. Disturbingly, this shows up even in cases where the protagonist has done something terrible to a female character, who disappears from the story after being harmed. Huang deliberately subverted the trope in a recent book, and analyzed the feedback she received:
It’s interesting, the responses I’ve gotten on this character and this scene. Male readers have tended to be neutral on the arc and the character or even view him as weak. Whereas female readers have almost universally come back with, “OMG I HATE HIM SO MUCH YEAH CAS PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE PUNCH HIM AGAIN!!!”
Of course, a few first readers on one book aren’t enough to draw empirical conclusions. But what I can say is this: it’s a pervasive trope, and at least some of us are really dang tired of seeing men given sympathy for the awful things done to women.
It ain’t your pain, dude. It’s ours.
I find Huang’s explanation, even though she’s referring to sci-fi and fantasy, very relevant given how often this also shows up in romance novels. Kudos to her for having her female protagonist fight back!
It’s been about a month since I turned in my final paperwork to graduate from my doctoral program. Officially, I won’t have the diploma in hand until the end of summer semester (August).
I’m not really sure how I’m feeling right now. Not having a dissertation, or any academic work, hanging over my head has been a lovely experience. It’s been a long time. It’s been nice getting my head back together, spending time with my kids, and reading a lot of books that have nothing to do with drugs, alcohol, or nineteenth-century cultural, medical, or literary history.
I’m in the realm of what some call “post-academic,” as I am not planning to pursue a tenure track job. For the first time ever, I really have no idea what I am going to do next. Simultaneously this feels freeing, yet completely batshit crazy. In academia, you are always “supposed to have a plan.”
It’s an interesting space, largely as I feel like I’m wrestling with expectations, my own and that of others. On the one hand, wasn’t I supposed to be a teacher? Aren’t I supposed to be sending out book proposals to turn my dissertation into a monograph? Aren’t I supposed to be giving conference papers? What’s wrong with me that I never wanted any of this? (And, having seen blog posts out there from individuals who have left the academy—there is so much censure regarding other people’s choices and decisions. So many terrible words about how it’s all your own damned fault for choosing the “wrong” program or “wrong” career path. How dare you be honest about your pain, in other words, and imply that maybe it’s the academy that’s a wee bit fucked up?)
In looking back, I think all I wanted to do was to keep studying history. And a doctoral program seemed to be the only socially-sanctioned way to do that, at the time.
The major takeaway is that I am far too concerned with what others think of me and what their expectations are. My heart knows that expectations don’t matter, and that there is nothing wrong with me. I will find my way. My head, though—oh, my academically-trained head! That woman needs to be deprogrammed, stat.
I have been reading Pema Chödrön lately and am trying to be more open. I am so tired of trying to present a certain appearance to the world, or of judging others for who I think they are. This, from Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, has been on my mind a lot:
“Then this experience of opening to the world begins to benefit ourselves and others simultaneously. The more we relate with others, the more quickly we discover where we are blocked, where we are unkind, afraid, shut down. Seeing this is helpful, but it is also painful. Often the only way we know how to react is to use it as ammunition against ourselves. We aren’t kind. We aren’t honest. We aren’t brave, and we might as well give up now. But when we apply the instruction to be soft and nonjudgmental to whatever we see right at that very moment, then this embarrassing reflection in the mirror becomes our friend. Seeing that reflection becomes motivation to soften further and lighten up more, because we know it’s the only way we can continue to work with others and be of any benefit to the world.” [Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 76-77.]
“Soft and nonjudgmental.” That is the space I’m trying to inhabit right now—as I seem to be dwelling in the “in between” stages of my life. I think this will be an intensely healing space, if I allow myself to feel everything that I’m feeling and to become friends with ambiguity. It is truly okay that I do not know right now. It is truly okay that “they” do not know either.
[Now that my dissertation is done and defended, I’m on to tackle my really large backlog of ARCs…]
Jessica Ortner, The Tapping Solution for Weight Loss and Body Confidence
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or “tapping”) is one of the stranger things I’ve encountered in the years since I started exploring self-help literature. The simplest way I can define it is to borrow from Nick Ortner of The Tapping Solution, who calls it a “combination of acupressure and talk therapy.” Admittedly, it looks utterly bizarre when you first see it. But, to my surprise, tapping has turned into one of the most powerful tools in my spiritual practice. I’ve used it to explore painful memories and to ease stress, and have gained perspective on troubling emotions and even physical pain.
Nick Ortner and his sister Jessica have done a great deal to promote tapping through their organization, The Tapping Solution (there is also a book and a documentary with the same name). Jessica Ortner has written a book aimed primarily at women, The Tapping Solution for Weight Loss and Body Confidence (published originally in May 2014), even though I think men would find it useful as well. Like Geneen Roth, Ortner’s point is that to truly get at a weight issue, you need to address the underlying thoughts and emotions associated with it. As she says, “weight loss is not the key to happiness; it’s the other way around” (loc. 2691 in my ARC). In other words, while the book focuses on weight and body image issues, it is really about getting in touch with the emotions and beliefs that lead many of us to continue to overeat and criticize ourselves.
The book breaks down the various ways in which we self-sabotage, and Ortner provides “tapping scripts” to help address these emotions. In Ortner’s personal experience, and that of her clients, once beliefs and emotions are addressed, people are more likely to engage in self-care and to exercise, as they are no longer associating negativity with the subject of weight loss. If I have a quibble with the book, it is that Ortner spends too much time breaking down the scientific research done on EFT, as it comes off as if she is trying too hard to convince the reader with “Science!” that EFT is helpful.
I greatly appreciate Ortner’s enthusiasm and openness, which comes through in the book. She also has a fun podcast, Adventures in Happiness, which is worth checking out.
Source: ARC from NetGalley
Christine Wheeler, The Tapping Solution for Teenage Girls
Christine Wheeler is the author of the first Tapping Solution book not written by an Ortner, and I purchased this one immediately for my daughter. Her book explains tapping in an accessible way for young women, and she has also included commentary from a teenage girl, Cassidy, that helps make the book age appropriate. Wheeler covers most of the emotional drama that teenagers encounter, such as body image, bullying, romance, sexuality, parental divorce, and anxiety. She also has a useful grid method to outline emotions that I may start using for myself. I highly recommend this book.
Source: ARC from NetGalley, copy I purchased from Amazon
(Disclosure: I won a copy of this book in a giveaway from Westerson’s July 2015 newsletter.)
Jeri Westerson is best known for her Crispin Guest “medieval noir” mystery series, which I discovered a couple of years ago. Having enjoyed those books very much, I was thrilled to hear that she had written a novel set in the Tudor period (which for me is utter catnip). Roses in the Tempest was one of Westerson’s early books, but wasn’t published until 2015, and I admit to being impressed that Westerson set the novel within the context of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. While most Tudor-set novels tend to focus on Henry, his wives, or his court, Westerson does a fantastic job of showing how Henry’s policies had real and often stark consequences for his people. The novel centers on two characters, Thomas Giffard and Isabella Launder. Thomas is the son of the local nobleman, who befriends Isabella, the daughter of a yeoman farmer, largely because she is the one person in his life who refuses to defer to him. Isabella eventually joins the Benedictine priory at Blackladies, and the novel traces Thomas and Isabella’s relationship as they cope with the changing circumstances of Henry’s reign.
Thomas and Isabella did exist in real life, although the full scope of their relationship has been lost to history. The novel alternates between Thomas and Isabella’s viewpoints—in tone and structure, it reminds me a great deal of Lindsey Davis’ Roman-set novels The Course of Honour and Master and God (both were written after Roses…I just happened to read them immediately before it). Westerson does a fantastic job of conveying the emotional turmoil caused by Thomas and Isabella’s differing class positions, by the upheavals of Henry’s “Great Matter” and the formation of the Church of England, and by corrupt Tudor officials. My only real complaint with the story is that it ends abruptly and doesn’t quite feel satisfying for the reader. In the end, while Crispin Guest will always be my favorite Westerson character, I did enjoy the book quite a bit, and I’d be happy to see Westerson return to the Tudor period in future novels.
(Incidentally, Westerson also puts out one of the best author newsletters out there, and I’m not just saying that because I won a copy of her book. In her newsletters, she fills you in on self-publishing, arcana regarding medieval and Tudor history, and even weaponry. You can sign up here at Westerson’s website.)
Source: Copy from the author
Quick update (4/02/2016): Westerson just sent out her April newsletter, in which she announced that she is working on a new Tudor-era mystery series featuring Will Somers, Henry VIII’s fool.
Journalist Scott Martelle’s The Admiral and the Ambassador (published May 1, 2014) is the story of how the American Ambassador to France, Horace Porter, successfully located the body of Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones in Paris and brought it back to the United States. It is an interesting story, particularly as the search for the body proved far more complicated than anyone anticipated, involving searches through multiple French archives, the paying off of property owners, digging tunnels under buildings in search of lead coffins, and forensic analysis of the body.
While the story of how Jones’ body was lost and found is compelling, Martelle unfortunately makes one of the more common mistakes when writing history: he presents us with all of his research in the main body of his narrative. (We’ve all done it—just ask my dissertation advisor…) As readers, we are given almost complete biographies of both Jones and Porter, as well as capsule histories of the naval battles of the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and William McKinley’s assassination, among other events. While these do provide context, I would argue that we do not need this much context. Porter, for example, does not even begin to search for Jones’ body until halfway through the book (at almost 50% in my ARC, and not in earnest until 64%).
I would recommend this book for anyone interested in either Jones or Porter, but be aware that you will be doing a lot of skimming to get to the interesting parts.
Source: ARC from NetGalley
Chris Jennings | Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism | Random House | January 2016 | 29 minutes (7,852 words)
* * *
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at. . . .
Mistaking day for night, they took wing.
At noon, darkness spread across the sky. It was the nineteenth of May 1780, a Friday. On the rolling pastureland of western New England, sheep and cows lay down one by one in the damp grass. As the darkness became total, finches and warblers quieted and returned to their roosts. Above the white pines and budding oaks, bats stirred. Mistaking day for night, they took wing.
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