Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

New to the Stacks: 2021

The Art Of Dale Chihuly by Burgard, Tim
How to Change Your Mind by Pollan, Michael
Out front the following sea by Angstman, Leah
Asimov’s Guide To The Bible by Asimov, Isaac
The Alien Stars by Pratt, Tim – reading
Villains by Necessity by Woods, Sara
In Your Eyes by Derus, Richard M.
The Girl Wakes by Lau, Carmen
Remapping Wonderland by Various
Footnote 1 by Various – read
Footnote 2 by Various
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Okorafor, Nnedi
Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium by Herrin, Judith
The Four Agreements by Ruiz, Don Miguel – read
God in the Qur’an by Miles, Jack
The book of delights by Ross, Gay
Coyote Songs by Iglesias, Gabino
Devil in a Blue Dress by Mosley, Walter
A Rage in Harlem by Himes, Chester
Zero Saints by Iglesias, Gabino – read
Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Vote by Teele, Dawn Langan
Book Of Revelation by Beal, Timothy – read
The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto by Velez, Karin

Review: Shakespeare’s Library

Shakespeare's Library
Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells

Title: Shakespeare’s Library
Author: Stuart Kells
Published: 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1-64009-183-2
Publisher: Counterpoint Press

Publisher’s Blurb:   Millions of words of scholarship have been expended on the world’s most famous author and his work. And yet a critical part of the puzzle, Shakespeare’s library, is a mystery. For four centuries people have searched for it: in mansions, palaces and libraries; in riverbeds, sheep pens and partridge coops; and in the corridors of the mind. Yet no trace of the bard’s manuscripts, books or letters has ever been found.

The search for Shakespeare’s library is much more than a treasure hunt. Knowing what the Bard read informs our reading of his work, and it offers insight into the mythos of Shakespeare and the debate around authorship. The library’s fate has profound implications for literature, for national and cultural identity, and for the global Shakespeare industry. It bears on fundamental principles of art, identity, history, meaning and truth.

Unfolding the search like the mystery story that it is, acclaimed author Stuart Kells follows the trail of the hunters, taking us through different conceptions of the library and of the man himself. Entertaining and enlightening, Shakespeare’s Library is a captivating exploration of one of literature’s most enduring enigmas.

Oh, silly me.  I thought I might learn something of a writer’s inspiration and the books he turned to time and again while writing Elizabethan era plays which have, in turn, inspired many writers across 400 years.

I was not captivated by Stuart Kells’ book, even as I realized it was about the many theories of where and what Shakespeare’s library might be.  Uninterested in the stories of charlatans and crackpot academic theories, I didn’t learn anything interesting.  Only that there’s a mystery surrounding Shakespeare’s non-existent library and people will go to great lengths to prove their pet theory or feed their greed with forged papers and books.

Stuart Kells deserves plaudits for his research and his love for this mystery.   He approaches the entire subject with a great deal of humor and large grains of salt.  And kudos to him for listening to people who have clearly gone off the rails over this mystery.

For people looking to learn something really interesting about Shakespeare and his time, I highly recommend Globe:  Life in Shakespeare’s London by Catharine Arnold.

To Do List: Who Cooked the Last Supper?

Who Cooked the Last Supper by Rosalind Miles

Title: Who Cooked the Last Supper?
Author: Rosalind Miles
Published: 2001
ISBN-13: 9780609806951
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Publisher’s Blurb:
Who Cooked the Last Supper? overturns the phallusy of history and gives voice to the untold history of the world: the contributions of millions of unsung women.

Men dominate history because men write history. There have been many heroes, but no heroines. Here, in Who Cooked the Last Supper?, is the history you never learned–but should have!

Without politics or polemics, this brilliant and witty book overturns centuries of preconceptions to restore women to their rightful place at the center of culture, revolution, empire, war, and peace. Spiced with tales of individual women who have shaped civilization, celebrating the work and lives of women around the world, and distinguished by a wealth of research, Who Cooked the Last Supper? redefines our concept of historical reality.

Ugh, I really hate the play on words using phallusy in this blurb.  Let’s not make light of the topic at hand.

Rosalind Miles’ Who Cooked the Last Supper? is dense to read at times.  It is well-researched, which does not mean it’s an easy read.  A review will come when I’ve had more time to mull over what she has to say.

To Do List: Feminisms and Womanisms

Feminisms and Womanisms edited by Susan Silva-Wayne and Althea Prince

Title: Feminisms and Womanisms
Author: Althea Prince and Susan Silva-Wayne
Published: 2003
ISBN-13: 978-0889614116
Publisher: Women’s Press

Publisher’s Blurb:  This collection of feminist writings has theory and praxis as its focus. The theoretical underpinnings of feminism, as well as the social action that it fuelled, are given full attention. Feminisms and Womanisms includes writings about First, Second and Third Wave Feminism, the voices of First Nations feminists, and those of feminists of colour. The reader includes chapters by feminist theorists such as Bell Hooks, Linda Briskin, Christine Bruckert, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill-Collins, Tammy Landau, Audre Ldrde, Inga Muscio, Viviane Namaste, Makeda Silvera, Dorothy Smith, Alice Walker, and Naomi Wolfe.

True story.  In the pre-plague times when we were still required to work at the office, I’d befriended a lunch-time buddy because I thought he was a fellow reader.  Turns out his actions showed him to be the sort of man who thinks himself a staunch feminist but really isn’t.  He loved to tell me how I should do things and what I was allowed to talk about.  One day, I’d had enough and told a fib.

“I have deadlines so I can’t eat with you anymore.”  The next day, I sat at a different table reading Feminisms and Womanisms, taking notes.  As he walked past, lunch buddy said, “I hope that pays off for you some day.”  I let all sarcastic comments stay in my head.

Feminisms and Womanisms is a heady collection of excerpts from seminal feminist texts.  It helped me on my journey to my own feminism, and gave me much to think about.

A fuller review will appear here.

Review: Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Title: Alexander Hamilton
Author: Ron Chernow
Published: 2004
ISBN-13: 9781594200090
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publisher’s Blurb:  Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.

 

Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth by Stephen F. Knott

Title: Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth
Author: Stephen F. Knott
Published: 2002
ISBN-13: 978-0-7006-1419-6
Publisher: University Press of Kansas
Twitter:  @publius57
Publisher’s Blurb:   explores the shifting reputation of our most controversial founding father. Since the day Aaron Burr fired his fatal shot, Americans have tried to come to grips with Alexander Hamilton’s legacy. Stephen Knott surveys the Hamilton image in the minds of American statesmen, scholars, literary figures, and the media, explaining why Americans are content to live in a Hamiltonian nation but reluctant to embrace the man himself.

“The image of Hamilton fashioned by Jefferson and his allies has endured and flourished, and the Hamilton of American memory is a Hamilton who championed privilege and who was a foe of liberty.”  (Knott, p. 26)

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Stephen F. Knott’s Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth offer a unique insight to both the man, and the legend of the man.

And while I have pondered long and hard about how to write about Hamilton without turning into a Thomas Jefferson bashing machine, it is difficult to talk about one without the other.  Thanks to Jefferson and his network of devoted mouthpieces, Hamilton’s reputation remains in tatters centuries after the founding of the US.

That it took a musical based on Chernow’s book to address, and repair, Hamilton’s reputation is a statement on how deeply entrenched lies and rumors become.  It’s also a statement on how easy it is to believe the worst in people instead of looking for the best.

Not that Hamilton was a complete paragon of virtue, and could, “at moments of supreme stress, … screw himself up to an emotional pitch that was nearly feverish in intensity.”  (Chernow, p. 115) It is hard to imagine how a man with such an towering intellect could have so many blind spots, and be so stupid.

Soaring blind spots seem to go hand in hand with towering intellect.  Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and James Madison, all seemed to be intimidated by Hamilton’s intellect.  “The byzantine, interrelated nature of his programs (e.g. central banking, professional standing military, international trade with Britain) made him all the more the bane and terror of his opponents.”  (Chernow, p. 349)

Nuance, and the lack of understanding thereof, is the two-edged blade of smart people everywhere.  It’s baffling how so many around us just don’t understand what we think is an easy idea. “… things were so blindingly self-evident to Hamilton that he was baffled when others didn’t grasp them quickly – an intellectual agility that could breed intolerance for less quick-witted mortals.”  (Chernow, p. 119)

Knott picks up this thread, “At bottom, Jefferson could not countenance the fact that an immigrant upstart without the appropriate pedigree … dared challenge him.”  (Knott, p. 11)

Jefferson presented the image of a down-home gentleman farmer who understood the agrarian slave-holding farmers of Virginia.  He came from wealth, owned property and was a slaveholder. That the bastard child of poverty from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean should rise up and challenge him was more than Jefferson could tolerate.

As is also sometimes true of very smart people, Hamilton was not a crafty plotter and “often could not muzzles his opinions.”  (Chernow, p. 176) The myth which has stuck to Hamilton most is that the people are a “great beast,” not to be trusted with direct democracy.

Hamilton was right, but there’s a nuance long missed by his detractors.  Trusting a mob mentality to make sensible decisions, especially those involving running a government is a bad idea.  As individuals, we are smart and sensible. Of course we know, individually, what we want and need from our government leaders.  Put us in a big group and mob mentality takes over, and no one has a good idea, not even what’s for dinner.

This myth about Hamilton continues to live because of he understood the unruliness of a mob.  On this point, he was accused of hating all people, especially the less-privileged and standing for something like a monarchy in America.  Lesser minds were too busy making up lies and spreading gossip to try to understand the nuance in Hamilton’s statements.

He wasn’t against a democracy per se, he was against allowing the unruly mob have such power.  Among other political factors, this is one of the reasons we’re stuck with the electoral college.  How else to avoid the mistakes of mob rule?

In the late 18th century it was impossible to believe the republic would ever be big enough, educated enough, and sensible enough to have good decision making processes.  Women read? Slaves freed and owning land? Hah, never happen.

Except Hamilton sort of expected it, even if he couldn’t get past the hypocrisy of being white, educated, (male), and marrying into money.  His heart and ideals were in the right place, though. His background prepared him well to understand why paying and supplying the militias was important.  He championed a standing professional army, precisely because farmers arriving on the field of battle with a pitchfork were woefully unprepared for the rigors of professional fighting.

Hamilton even understood the need for a centralized federal bank for economic stability.  (And that’s all I’m qualified to recount because the only thing I know about banking is there are too many fees.)  He was, according to both Chernow and Knotts, an economic genius. Well, they’re not the only ones, economists over the centuries have sung his praises too.

But these lofty ideas were held in contempt by those threatened by his enormous mind and his exceptional work ethic.  I can understand his disinclination to pander or be less forceful when expressing ideas. We just want to get stuff done and don’t have the energy to play the political games at which others are so good.

And those blind spots?  How about Hamilton as participant in the nation’s first sex scandal?  For over a year, Maria Reynolds, and her husband, caught Hamilton in their thrall and blackmailed him.  “Quite understandably, [there were those who] could not conceive that someone as smart and calculating as Hamilton could have stayed as long in thrall to an enslaving passion.  Hamilton could not have been stupid enough to pay hush money for sex, [they] alleged, so the money paid … had to involve illicit speculation.  In all fairness, … it is baffling that Hamilton submitted to blackmail for so long.”  (Chernow, p. 530)

And Hamilton, rather than quietly admitting it and moving on, wrote volumes to be published in newspapers describing every sordid detail.  Career was the motive for this, not worry over his marriage to Eliza and their family. After the affair, Hamilton never strayed far from his family, remaining close by until his death.

Which, of course, leads to the duel with Aaron Burr.  Hamilton, “born without honor, was exceedingly sensitive to any slights to his political honor.”  (Chernow, p. 237) Born without honor, meaning born of suspect parental lineage. Believed to be a bastard, the quickest way to get him riled up was to mention this.

“[Burr] was a chameleon who evaded clear-cut positions on and was a genius at studied ambiguity.”  (Chernow, p. 192) He was an opportunist, and could figure out endless ways to profit from any political wrangling surrounding him.  Further, Chernow writes, “… Burr was a lone operator, a protean figure who formed alliances for short-term gain.” (p. 421)

He was bent on revenge for Hamilton’s part in Burr’s ostracism from the Jefferson administration and losing the governorship of New York because Hamilton was freely quoted as saying Burr wasn’t fit for office.  Hamilton can hardly be blamed for Jefferson dropping Burr from the ticket as VP. The quote about not being fit for office, that part was true.

Weehawken, NJ on July 11, 1804 lives in infamy as the place Burr shot Hamilton, thus ending the career and loving marriage of Alexander Hamilton who only ever wanted to see the US become a strong nation.  Burr’s life ended that day too. “…Hamilton committed his last patriotic act, for he ensured that Aaron Burr would never again be a viable player in the politics of the early republic.” (Knott, p. 1)

But, Hamilton’s legend lives on.  Depending on the era, he’s been seen as selfish and elitist, interested only in money and power.  Depression-era scholars and politicians blamed the Depression on Hamilton, despite being dead for 125 years.

Even his scandalous affair made an appearance during the Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998 when his team presented “a thirty page brief to the House Judiciary Committee citing Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds and the reluctance of Congress to pursue the issue after concluding it was a private matter.”  (Knotts, p. 225)

The profound effect Hamilton had on government is immeasurable.  Chernow’s nearly 800 page biography follows Hamilton from Nevis to his rise in US politics and his death at the gun of Aaron Burr.  Chernow admires Hamilton but doesn’t let that get in the way of the facts as presented.

Stephen F. Knott also admires Hamilton and defends Hamilton against the scurrilous myths which continue to be taken as truth.  Between the two, Chernow and Knott present an interesting and entertaining read of a man too intellectual and uncompromising for the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr to respect.

Chernow has the best last word, “Any biographer foolhardy enough to attempt an authoritative life of Alexander Hamilton must tread a daunting maze of detail.”  (Chernow, p. 733)

New to the Stacks: More Hamilton and Mythology

Earth by David Brin
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth by Stephen F. Knott
The Transparent Society by David Brin
Early Irish Myths and Saga

Earth by David Brin
Coraline by Neil Gaiman ~ read
Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth by Stephen F. Knott ~ read
The Transparent Society by David Brin
Early Irish Myths and Sagas

New to the Stacks: Shadow Ops, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Other Goodness

They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders by Janet Mason

They by Janet Mason – Read
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner ~ #LitCrit ~ Read
Darkness Visible by William Styron
The Annotated Alice – annotated by Martin Gardner
Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole – Read
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates – read

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Darkness Visible by William Styron
Annotated Alice in Wonderland
Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Review: Stealing: Life in America

Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

Title: Stealing:  Life in America
Author: Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780999516416
Publisher: Adelaide Books
I received a copy of Stealing:  Life in America from Adelaide Books in return for an honest review.  Thank you!

Winter in Maine is not just a season but a location, sign-posted in layers of cold-white drifts and gritty ice. – “Winter” – p. 193

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s book of essays titled Stealing:  Life in America is more than just the relating of facts about being poor in Brooklyn, of Russian Jewish ancestry, and how those combine to give a sense of identity.

Those are the bare bone facts.  These essays, though, carry power.   Cacho-Negrete’s power comes from her honesty and her eloquence.  Her words touch exposed nerves, and reveal the wounds which come from the poverty our country refuses to acknowledge.

Her first essay, “Stealing,” begins this way, “The day I decided to steal food I instituted three simple rules: Steal only essentials, only from big chains, never brag.”

These are not the words of someone who feels entitled to what the world hasn’t given them.  These are the words of a truly desperate single mother trying to make it four months until her teaching job begins.  This stings, and it should.  This is, we are told, avoidable if we only follow the rules and do all that’s expected of us to rise in the world.

Except …. there’s always an except in these stories.  Except Cacho-Negrete did what she was supposed to do.  She worked hard, got her education, married, and had children.  The promise of education is that it will lift us out of our poverty and put us directly into the arms of the middle class where we will be cradled until we die.

Stealing:  Life in America isn’t necessarily an indictment of a part of society we’d rather not acknowledge.  It’s also not the story of “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, you can too.”  This book is an intimate look at how hard that climb is, especially if the climb starts in the Brooklyn ghetto of the 1940s and 50s.

From Brooklyn, the reader goes on a trip in search of relatives near and far.  The grandfather and aunt, also in Brooklyn, her mother refuses to talk to, giving no reason to her curious daughter.  In “Country of the Past”, in Finland, near the Russian border with her husband, she wonders about her Russian ancestors, and if crossing the border illegally will give her a connection at all.  Would she somehow feel connected to the part of her heritage which was held in contempt always?

Physical appearance plays a part in identity.  And “Hair” is about having tightly curled blonde locks in a time when having straight hair was a societal requirement in being accepted.  It’s a discussion of where all the feminine outliers go to bring their unruly hair under control, and how women will do what needs to be done to fit in better.  An experience not unlike what women continue to go through in 2019.

“Rejection” tells the experience of the person we all know and can’t understand.  The one who gets under our skin and stays there despite our best efforts.  She writes, “But I am sensitive, and always have been, to the subtle clues people put out. (p. 68)”    Me too sister.  And the ones we are most sensitive to are the people who just don’t like us for no good reason we can see.  We weren’t given a chance to piss them off, they just seem to arrive in our lives that way.  And through her neighbor’s heartache, Cacho-Negrete is kindness itself.  Only to be spurned again.  Telling us we’re overreacting in such cases doesn’t mean a thing.  We know something’s going on, even if we don’t know what.  And that’s what drives us nuts.  There is no explanation for their behavior.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays gather her readers around in a warm circle while she tells stories of doing the best we can in horrible situations in which the answer is clear, but not to those who can make a change.  She writes of meeting women fortunate enough to have never worried about how they spend their money.  And she writes of the part of her, while now financially comfortable, who can only wonder why someone needs more than one expensive hand bag or more than two designer sweaters.  Because she knows the pain of complete lack, Cacho-Negrete lives in the world of thrift stores and only buying what she absolutely needs.  It is unfathomable to her to buy more.

Her journey moves to Brooklyn to Maine, where she and her second husband live a good, comfortable life.  But because life is life, and nothing is ever always easy, her husband winds up in the hospital with an idiopathic condition.  (The irony that the word for an unknown illness has the same first letters as idiot is not lost on me.)

Here, in “Days and Days and Days Inbetween” is the story of a different kind of pain and anxiety, told with compassion.  But the longing for a diagnosis, an answer to “will he be all right” is just beneath the surface.  How can it not be?  In the end, yes he is all right.

While many of Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays resonated on a deeply emotional level with me, this did not take away from being enraptured by her story-telling ability.  Eloquent, warm, matter-of-fact, and the near perfect telling of a life of adventure.  Struggles overcome, an understanding of how far she’d moved from those fire escapes in Brooklyn, and a modest bit of triumphalism are what make Stealing:  Life in America worth reading.