Spook by Mary Roach ~ Review
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publisher’s Blurb: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a spellbinding and dazzlingly innovative portrait of a woman haunted by the past.
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It’s often difficult to tell the difference between an over-hyped book and one deserving of my attention. Thus it was between Beloved and I. Until an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad made me think I “should” read it. The tipping point came over lunch with a friend who was absolutely shocked I hadn’t. All righty then.
The opening line, “124 was spiteful,” sets the stage. Who or what is 124 and why is s/he/it/they spiteful? That sentence leads into the deeply moving, dark tale of not so distant slavery and being black in America. Which story resonates today as we struggle with racism in modern times.
124 is haunted by the spirit of Sethe’s daughter who, we learn as the story moves on, was killed as an infant as protection by her mother from the slave runners. This “ghost” symbolizes all the pain, anger, and suffering slaves endured at the hands of white owners.
But then, Beloved appears seemingly out of nowhere and is suspected to be the corporeal manifestation of Sethe’s daughter. The chaos still exists, now represented by the physical embodiment of pain, anger, and suffering.
124’s inhabitants are the epitome of chaos as buried memories come to the surface. How can anyone go on after suffering the horrific indignities of being a slave? How can life go on? How can anything approach something approximating “normal?”
Beloved explores these questions. And faces harsh realities. Being black in America will never afford the right of equality and the privilege of agency. Never.
My favorite quote is from a scene that Paul D describes while a slave at Sweet Home. He describes to Sethe what it was like to have his eyes opened by Schoolteacher, who taught everyone on the plantation until Mister broke up the lessons. Mister gets to be Mister no matter what, because he’s white. “Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.” Paul D realizes now his value was less than the chicken who was about to become dinner. Schoolteacher exposed him to that understanding, which both binds Paul D tighter and frees him.
Cleveland in 1863 just as well be Ferguson 2014 or Philadelphia 2018. Anyone who thinks this is not the way of the world hasn’t been paying attention.
Beloved is complex. And I join the chorus which insists this is a book which should be read by everyone. Repeatedly.
See my list of books which help me understand being black in America.
This is an incomplete list of books I’ve read which have helped me understand what it means to be “other,” based on skin color. They make my heart ache, and think more deeply about my own privilege of being white.
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Beautiful Struggle – Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Should All Be Feminists Now – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Not a Genuine Black Man – Brian Copeland
By Any Means Necessary – Malcolm X
Beloved – Toni Morrison
The Armored Saint by Myke Cole ~ Review
DNF (Did Not Finish)
I loved My Name is Red, but The Museum of Innocence is not even close to the same level of goodness. Most other reviewers who, presumably, finished the book were kind when they wrote it was not Pamuk’s best work.
The same attention to detail of things which worked so well in MNIR gets boring in TMOI because the story doesn’t go anywhere. Kemal’s obsessive love is ruinous. And yet, all we are treated to is the litany of his obsessive pilfering of objects which he does creepy things with to relive the joy that moment brought him. When it got to an actual enumeration of the 4,213 cigarette butts he’d pilfered and catalogued for his museum, I’d had enough.
I don’t care what happens next.
Title: The Methods of Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood
Publisher: McFarland Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is a central work in the recent renaissance in television-making. … This collection of new essays focuses on a variety of themes.
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As a writer, I found Breaking Bad a ripping good story. Which, in my vernacular means asking, “What happens next?” And that was my reaction to Breaking Bad a lot. Digging into the themes and subtext has helped deepen my understanding of writing as a craft, and of Vince Gilligan’s brilliance as a story-teller. Not to mention Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the fascinatingly unlikable Walter White.
Breaking Bad is a work that facilitates, perhaps even makes possible, a dialogue about aesthetic, philosophical, psychological, and ethical elements in our culture in a way we have yet to see in television. (p. 7)
The essays written by academics in The Methods of Breaking Bad focus on the ways in which the story is told. I found it invigorating, inspiring and, more than a little intimidating. At best, I am casual viewer, reviewer and writer. One can only go so far on one’s own.
Miguel E. H. Santos-Neves’ essay, “Our ‘word … is half someone else’s’: Walt and the Literary Echoes of Whitman” focuses on the purpose of Walt Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer” in Breaking Bad. In larger context, Santos-Neves makes the point that unlike the insular community of a story like The Sopranos, the literary allusions in Walter White’s world point to something less constrained, the entire world. Bonus points for making me finally read Whitman.
Not many of the characters in Breaking Bad were likeable. Most were downright loathsome, yet viewers returned episode after episode, hanging on every twist and turn. Aside from Jesse Pinkman (Walter’s sidekick), and Mike (played so well by the always excellent Jonathan Banks) who had his own sense of honor, there was no one I liked.
Giving Skyler White short shrift was quite in vogue at the time. After reading Rebecca Price Wood’s “Breaking Bad Stereotypes about Postpartum: A Case for Skyler White,” I reconsidered. Price Wood’s thesis that Skyler’s behavior was exacerbated by being pregnant for most of the series, and giving birth to beautiful Holly resonated. Surviving in Walt’s world would be harrowing for any woman. Trying to maintain sanity while pregnant and being mother to Flynn, who has cerebral palsy, would be damned near impossible. And that’s where Skyler finds herself. I still don’t like Skyler, but I do have more sympathy for her based on Price Wood’s essay.
The most fascinating essay for me was Neil Connelly’s “What Writers Can Learn From Breaking Bad: The Risks and Rewards of Deliberate Disorientation.” His comparison of Gilligan’s story telling style to that used by Toni Morrison in Beloved is what drove me to read it finally.
Above all else perhaps, the reader must trust the writer, must feel like an intentional master plan is being unveiled, must sense that her efforts are being rewarded with additional knowledge and understanding. (p. 49)
That was one of my aha! moments. As was the ensuing discussion of how disorientation is used to great effect. Gilligan’s skill forces us to trust he’s leading somewhere, and that we will understand when we get there. From the iconic opening scene of the RV roaring down the dirt road and a pair of khakis flying out the window to Walter’s death at his own hands, the viewer wonders “What is going on?” Followed at some later point by, “Oh! That’s what was going on!”
Reading Connelly’s essay helped me understand that disorientation was one of the most appealing things about Breaking Bad‘s story. Gilligan made me pay attention, and since the payoffs came frequently enough to help me understand the story at a deeper level, I came to trust the story was leading me somewhere interesting.
Overall, The Methods of Breaking Bad, led me to enjoy the show on a deeper level. As a creative person, the collection of essays gave me much to ponder about craft and style. Not a bad use of time, if you ask me.
Title: A Well-Behaved Woman
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publisher’s Blurb: The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family in as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.
Nancy Pearl has a the rule of 50. I have the rule of 100. Especially when a publisher is gracious enough to give me a free copy to read. I just couldn’t make it past 115.
Any sympathy I might have had for Alva Vanderbilt, and the plight of women in the Gilded age just went out the window. We are supposed to sympathize with this girl from the South whose family has fallen onto hard times so she marries into the Vanderbilts.
I tried, really I did. As a historian, I know it’s unfair to impose contemporary standards onto ages long gone. And i do sympathize that for women there was so little agency that marrying into a wealthy family, and gaining social status, was of the difference between a death from poverty, or living.
But honestly, Alva was so dull. And everyone in society so mean and cruel. And William was just one-dimensional. And the descriptions of the unseemly wealth and how it was spent ….
I am sorry Therese Anne Fowler, St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley that I can’t give a better review of this book. Thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity to try.
Title: Where Wizards Stay Up Late
Author: Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publisher’s Blurb: Twenty five years ago, it didn’t exist.
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DARPA had set out to link the core processing capabilities in America’s top computer science research centers … (p. 232)
The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used. (p. 218)
You know I’m old when I say there was a time in my life when I didn’t know what a computer really was, and I’d never heard of the internet or the World Wide Web. Really. Phones were attached to walls then too.
In 1984 I moved from Texas to Silicon Valley with my then boyfriend who had a newly minted degree in Computer Science and a job at a company which made disc duplicators.
I had no idea what I was in for. The Selectric III was the height of fashion for secretaries at the time, and I loved mine. But because I lived with a geek, the culture seeped in. We had multiple phone lines, various computers and modems, and … well, the rest is history, so to speak.
As I write this, I work at the Computer History Museum and am surrounded by the internet. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.
Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s book Where Wizards Stay Up Late takes the reader through the history of the Internet. From the wild and wooly days of ARPA, whose IPTO was charged with developing a way for academic computers to link together allowing for sharing of information over AT&T’s phone line.
The birth of what became the internet was four enormous computers in Santa Barbara, Menlo Park, CA, Boston, and Salt Lake City, Utah. And what an effort it took to figure out how to do that. No one knew what they were doing, it had to be developed from scratch.
While Hafner & Lyon lay out the history, this book is not highly readable for someone who isn’t either a history nut (me) or a computer geek (partly me). It gets technical, which is fascinating if you’re someone whose been around the lingo for almost 30 years (also me). It reads a lot like a text book.
One of the oddities was the condescending manner in which things like “kludge” were explained, but more technical terms and phrases were often unexplained. It was like reading a book for adults, and then finding something directed at children randomly inserted.
I like my reading to be aimed at intelligent adults, not someone who hasn’t learned to tie their shoes yet.
The end felt rushed, as though the authors realized they were running out of time and needed to pick up the pace. As with all things computer history related, there’s a complex story to tell. In trying to simplify the story enough to tell in one short book, Hafner and Lyon shortchanged their readers.
In other words, it’s an okay book. But just okay.
Title: The Inkblots
Author: Damion Searls
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publisher’s Blurb: The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test.
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[Rorschach] wanted to do more than treat patients: he wanted to bring culture and psychology together to explore the nature and meaning of individual and communal belief. (p. 91)
Ten inkblots. That’s all there are. Just ten cards with carefully thought out art in which can be found the meaning of the innermost workings of a human mind. There’s no right, or wrong, answer. Merely interpretation.
Rorschach’s carefully developed test remains controversial, its use hotly debated in psychology circles. Interpretation is key, but which method? Its usefulness as diagnostic tool is not without debate as well.
Hermann Rorschach was working towards a tool which would help psychiatrists know how to help their patients get better. Unfortunately, Rorschach died at the age of 37, not quite convinced his test was as finely tuned as it should be.
Damion Searls tells the story of this remarkable Swiss doctor/artist who yearned for a more holistic approach to patient care at the sanitarium for which he worked and did research. It was his hope that his inkblots, with careful diagnostics, would be one of the tools used for better care.
As someone who worked in the Ph.D. program for psychology at a small university, I’ve been exposed to the foibles of both students and faculty who think they have much to prove. Both to themselves and to each other. I can now be amused at the memories, at the time it was just downright painful to be in the middle of it.
And yet, Searls’ story reminded me of what we’re all up against, psychologists and laypeople alike. There’s a lot at stake for potential caregivers and their patients, and an overwhelming abundance of tools available. It’s no surprise that passions flare and boil over. Its understandable to some extent. This is not to say egos don’t come into play. I’ve encountered more than one “celebrity” psychologist who turned out to be a complete douche in need of some careful handling themselves.
Searls reminds me that despite all the posturing and arguing, there are people like Hermann Rorshach who are genuinely kind and caring, searching for ways to better help those under their care. Inkblots gave me real insight into the struggle of early psychoanalysts to find footing in their new field. Rorshach was among the pioneers, and his test has proven to be a useful tool for those who are careful with it.
Damion Searls has written the only biography of Hermann Rorschach and it’s worth reading if you’ve any interest in what makes people tick.