The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975)
HarperCollins
4.5/5

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It seems there’s a trickle of a theme running through my reading at the moment. Like the last book I read and reviewed here, The Monkey Wrench Gang provides an often comic, wittily crushing discourse on environmental degradation and the lone wolves self-deputizing to protect our planet. Like in Lucky You, this novel narrates the progress of a structured project conceived of by four private citizens aimed at preserving the environment in ways that many will find absurd, obscenely problematic. Abbey’s novel, though, a time-tested classic of American literature in spite of, or perhaps because of, its accidental status as a sometimes-field guide for ecoterrorists, is successful at the trick of executing insightful self-parody in combination with poignant commentary and often striking literary style.

I’ve long been a fan of environmental writing, though I read less of it now than I used to in more disciplined reading days. But a lot of writing in this genre can tend a bit monotonously toward the ekphrastic: so often there are stunning descriptions of natural scenes and processes following stunning descriptions of natural scenes and processes, usually resulting in either a sweetly lulling effect or a fervent desire to get out into the world to see it anew for oneself, and neither state is exactly conducive to sustained reading. So one of the aspects of The Monkey Wrench Gang that excited me was how character-centric it is. The things I love about environmental writing are here, still, and Abbey’s descriptions of the American Southwest are wonderful, but the very nature of the book’s plot precludes dwelling overly much on the beauty of deserts, the sublimity of canyons. One of the recurring symbols is the vulture, and while its presence is acknowledged as being part of the natural order of things, there’s an underlying suggestion that there’s been an uptick in business for the species, and the reason for this is clear.

George Hayduke, Doc Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, and Seldom Seen Smith—the novel’s main cast of characters—all come into contact with each other for the first time during a rafting expedition organized through Smith’s small rafting tour company. Each has their own backstory of individualized environmental activism, their own unique history of connecting with the earth and feeling its hurt on a deeply personal level, so their beer and marijuana-fueled decision to join forces and do something Serious about it seems natural. They model themselves after the Luddites, though they ironically are dependent in their lives and for their work on machines and other symbols of technological advancement—cars, highways, dynamite, high caliber rifles. Their plan is to sabotage earth reconstruction projects and no target is considered too big or too small: they seek to destroy billboards, construction equipment, SUVs, train lines, and bridges.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is sprawling—cinematic in its scope and in its delivery. Occasionally throughout the novel, the tense shifts for a sentence or two from past to present, and the reader is swept along in the urgency of the project, the rush to get things done before it’s too late for the characters and for the desert. Zigzagging across the Southwest, we follow Hayduke, Abbzug, and gang through action packed scenes as they blow up United State infrastructure, narrowly come out ahead in high speed car chases, trek through the desert under cover of darkness, and engage each other in volatile debate over the nature of their own actions. As in any good action-driven plot, though, there are also several quieter moments as the characters introspect, pause to take in the grandeur of it all, and come a somewhat uneasy truce with themselves and the world.

I’ll admit I had some trouble getting started with this book. Part of that trouble I think sprung from the fact that my reading of the first 100 pages or so was unusually fragments—I kept trying to read ten pages here, five pages there, and that didn’t work. Just as it’s best practice to set aside hours, not minutes, for movie viewing, it’s best to take in this novel in sustained sessions of engagement. I wasn’t surprised to read in Douglas Brinkley’s introduction to my copy that Thomas Pynchon has been a big fan of Abbey’s; The Monkey Wrench Gang struck me early and hard as being Pynchonesque in its encyclopedic knowledge of its subject matter delivered in unceasingly energetic bursts. As when reading Pynchon, one loses the trains of thought, the momentum build up by the unrelenting unwinding and recoiling of plots, character development, magical sentences that throw you off kilter again and again and again.

I also struggled a little bit with the novel’s dismissive and occasionally hostile portrayal of American Indians in the Southwest. Much of Abbey’s direct references to Indians seems as though it is meant to be ironic, tongue-in-cheek satire, but the lack of positive, redeeming images associated with Indians within the novel makes pinning down Abbey’s subliminal message here a bit confusing. (By way of contrast, The Monkey Wrench Gang also pokes a lot of fun at the Women’s Lib movement while simultaneously portraying a remarkably intelligent and resourceful woman in an often empowering and ultimately human way.)

I’m not sure this book is for everyone, and it’s definitely something one needs to be in the right sort of mood for, but I’m incredibly glad that I finally got around to this classic. In addition to just being a solid piece of entertaining writing, it’s given me a great to think about vis-à-vis environmental activism, when and how to stand up and act on one’s beliefs, and different ways of conceiving of civil disobedience. 4.5/5.

[I’ve read a few books since finishing this one, so I’ll do another mini-book round-up later and then a January wrap-up round-up tomorrow. I sat on this review too long, hoping to make something better of it, and now I’m just behind. Oops!]

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Lucky You by Erika Carter

Lucky You by Erika Carter (2017)
Counterpoint
2.5/5

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I chose my most hipster mug (which I love dearly) for this photo.

This debut novel by Erika Carter is a tricky one for me to rate and review because while I’m pretty sure I hated it, I also couldn’t put it down. Lucky You is a novel as compelling as your ex-friend’s diary, and, the further into it I got, the more it read like exactly that: a petty, sensationalistic diary written by someone (or, as the case may be, three someones) to whom very little actually happens. I read this book in about 24 hours, putting it down basically only to sleep and go to work, so perhaps my feverish pace lent something to my weird experience, but the more I think about it and discuss it with my friend Brittany (who raced through it pretty much the exact same timeframe as I did), the more sure I am in my original assessment. [DISCLAIMER: MINOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.]

Lucky You is a book about three young women—Rachel, Ellie, and Chloe—who, having failed to find jobs better than waitressing at a dive bar in their Arkansas college town, decide to join Rachel’s boyfriend Autry at his family’s cabin in the mountains for a year of living off the grid. They call it the Project, and Autry is convinced that they’ll be able to write a bestselling, movie-inspiring book about their experiences, but it quickly becomes apparent that not a one of them has any sort of aptitude for actually finishing (or starting) what they plan to much less thriving off-grid. They rely for the basic necessities on a local named Ran (actually my favorite character in the book) who helps them out with groceries in between trips into town to sell his homemade lip balm to hipsters and a Walmart executive named Michael, a married man with whom Ellie has been having an increasingly bizarre affair.

The men in this book are, with the almost-exception of Ran, generally disgusting people. But so are the women who stay with these men, cling to them, allow them literally write books about how they should be living their lives. Rachel, Ellie, and Chloe are all in their mid-twenties, but they behave and reason more like teenagers. They trade men and justify their betrayals with Facebook meme clichés, romanticize their various addictions while mercilessly picking apart the choices of their friends, lie about voting while pedantically lecturing others on the importance of honest and healthy living, and make mistake after mistake but can’t seem to recognize that that is what they are doing.

My biggest complaint about this book is that it bordered on misogynistic. The women are women but they act like girls in a fashion they seem to find darkly ironic, the best part about their lives. Often their efforts to buoy each other and themselves are mere lip service to the notion of empowerment, but even when they do take small, active steps toward freeing themselves and gaining a measure of autonomy over their lives, they trip themselves up, convince themselves that that’s not what they wanted anyway. There’s a fair amount of underplayed sexual violence in this book but it’s always portrayed as being emblematic of who these characters are as people. (For example, AND THIS IS A TEENY SPOILER FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK, Ellie is more or less gang raped after walking home alone [and I say “more or less” because the details are a bit unclear], wasted, from a bar and being accosted by a group of men who escort her home and have sex with her while she’s blacked out. This scene is used to illustrate Ellie’s breaking point with her deadbeat boyfriend, Jim, who’s never home to give her the attention she feels she deserves, and the effects of this event are hardly mentioned again after this point about her relationship has been made. We read about this rape to learn that Ellie is just the sort of person who does regrettable things with men to make herself feel better.) Propensity for sexual violence as character aspect is not a super feminist worldview in my book.

Essentially, the women’s plays toward power are treated with all the dignity and nuance of the set-up of a crass joke, and the punchline to their existence is that the novel’s title, Lucky You, doesn’t really apply to them. If this book is meant to be an exploration of how Millennials are coping with coming of age in these dark and scary times, it does a poor job of executing that vision. This book seemed like a parody of something, some dark satire that forgot what it was all about somewhere along the line. The writing is solid enough, though heavy on the clichés, but the characters are caricatures and the plot could have been culled from a Gen-Xer’s haze of hasty assumptions about young people and the Environmentalist movement. I raced through this book because I loved watching the train wreck, but now that it’s over, I feel the same sense of distaste and regret at wasted time as if I really had just read someone else’s diary, disappointed because I didn’t learn anything interesting about myself or useful about the world. 2.5/5.

Mini Book Round-Up Because I’ve Been Neglectful

I’ve been a bit negligent in keeping up to date here, mostly because I’ve been very busy with my boyfriend home recovering from surgery and doing a lot of soul searching about what I can be doing better as a citizen in this mind bogglingly imperfect country. This has meant that a great deal of my non-work screen time has been spent looking at social media, studying the work of bloggers I respect, researching charity organizations, etc and not blogging so much. And with the boyfriend, I’ve been catching up on a great deal of excellent television. (In two weeks we finished The Crown, Westworld, much of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and started Victoria and Young Pope. What a time to be alive.)  It’s been time well spent, but I do still also want to keep up with this blog so here’s a brief run down of the reading I’ve managed to fit in during the past two weeks or so.

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I wasn’t able to make it to a march yesterday, but I did pick up some great reads from Loganberry Books in Cleveland that evening that I felt were in keeping with the spirit of resistance.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (2016)
HarperCollins
4/5

Hidden Figures was a much breezier read than I was expecting, and I mean breezier in the sense that it was quick reading with only enough math and science thrown in as was necessary to understanding what the women in the book were actually working on. It’s very character driven, following a handful of women through their lives as first mid-level professionals—sometimes with an interlude of housewifery thrown in somewhere—then as computers for NASA’s precursor, NACA, during World War II. The NASA space race stuff that features as the primary storyline in the movie (which I dragged my still convalescing boyfriend too immediately after having finished the book) doesn’t enter the book’s narrative until about half way through. In this way, and by following many more than the three women focused on in the movie, the book has a much, much wider scope than its adaptation, but the adaptation is perfectly faithful to the optimistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tone prevalent throughout most of Shetterly’s telling of the stories of these “hidden” mathematicians. The book had a faint whiff of Horatio Alger about it, which, depending on my moods throughout my reading, I found sometimes charming but sometimes just annoying. Even when I was annoyed, though, I was always interested in the stories being told. I learned a lot about employment opportunities and experiences, particularly for black women, in the forties, fifties, and sixties, and I learned a lot about the space race (for example, I had no idea that Kennedy’s promise that America would put the first man on the moon was pretty much a surprise to NASA), and I learned just a lot of interesting stuff about the world during this three decade span. 4/5.

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Macavity enjoying Homesick for Another World.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (2017)
Penguin
5/5

I’m not usually one for short story collections but I absolutely adored this book. I became addicted to it, racing through the stories one after another even as I told myself after each one, “no you really must give yourself time to process this; do something else for a while.” I just fucking delighted in these stories. Almost every story in the book tells the story of a despicable anti-hero, someone terrible or close enough to terrible to make you shake your head in frustration, wondering why they won’t just take the plunge into full blown monstrosity. Among the characters are several drug addicts, unrequited but perversely obsessed lovers, liars and manipulators, people driven by shame, lust, an all-encompassing love of self, and variations on such qualities. Despite their distastefulness, there’s something distantly relatable about many of the characters, and the situations in which they’re described are bizarre, almost sublime in their combination of moral impoverishment and near-universal familiarity. And the writing is just so good. Beautiful sentence follows beautiful sentence, and all of this beauty makes the grossness of what is actually being described that much more jarring, that much more interesting. Moshfegh brings humanity to characters and situations that so often are used as archetypes of banal evil, and I loved every word of this collection. I’ve already purchased Eileen, one of her novels, and I can’t wait to dive in. 5/5.

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March: Book One and March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell (2013/2015)
Top Shelf Productions
4.5/5

I’ve had the first in the March trilogy sitting on my shelf for a few months now, and John Lewis’s graceful and empowering stand against Trump made last week seem as good a time as any to pull it down and give it a read. I’m so glad I did, and I enjoyed it and benefitted from it so much that I immediately went out and bought the second and third installments. I still haven’t finished the third book, but I’m planning on reading it sometime in the coming week, and I’ll maybe write more about all three when I’ve done that, but for now I’ll just say that these books are so well done and, though I think they’re primarily intended for younger readers, I think they’re just as appropriate and important for adults. I’ve already learned quite a bit about not only John Lewis (of whose biography I had only a sketchy grasp prior to starting these books) but also about the Civil Rights movements in general.

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These stories are always deserving of a space at the forefront of our consciousness, so I’m loathe to trot out the “so important in these troubled times” cliché, but what I felt made these books especially suitable for reading now is that they’re instructive and illuminating but also a bit less overwhelming than many of our other options for informing and inspiring ourselves toward active engagement with our government and each other. These are graphic novels, and the images are often harsh and violent, and many of them have been sticking with me through the week as I’ve read these books, but there are also pleasant, life-affirming images throughout, and they help spread hope throughout the dark stories being told, the dark story we all seem to be living right now. 4.5/5.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (2015)
Three Rivers Press
2/5

I picked this one up for some light, mind soothing brainless reading at bedtime, and it largely suited that purpose, so, while I didn’t enjoy most of it, I can’t complain too much. The first section contains a lot of essays about Kaling’s transition from The Office to her new(er) show, The Mindy Project, which I haven’t actually seen so perhaps that’s why I found this section to be pretty dull? I’ve read books about shows I haven’t seen before though (Why do I do this? Why am I like this?), and I’ve enjoyed those, so I don’t think that was entirely it. She writes about what it’s like to do sex scenes on set, her struggle getting The Mindy Project on the air, and other topics that are interesting in theory, but I just didn’t find any of it very compelling as written. The middle section grabbed me much more—one essay is just a series of fake emails and text messages exploring a fantasy life full of romance and snarky exchanges between colleagues that Kaling imagines for herself had she become a high school Latin teacher. I loved that essay; it was charming and funny and just a smidge outrageous. The final section of the book had a lot of essays about body image and confidence and success which I wanted so much to like, but ultimately they were bland, boot-strappy, and pretty uncompromising, and I couldn’t get excited about any of it. 2/5.

The Murder on the Enriqueta by Molly Thynne (1929)
Dean Street Press
3/5

This is another book I chose to pick up as a sort of anodyne to current events, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a Golden Age mystery about a series of murders that take place in close proximity to the recently widowed Lady Dalberry. Lady Dalberry’s inheritance is rather up in the air, and while her finances get settled, she attaches herself to the naïve but charming Carol, a few months shy of her coming of age and inheritance of her own vast fortune. A member of the Scotland Yard and the Dalberry family executor, Jasper Mellish, have a keen interest in both Carol’s welfare and the murders, and spend much of the novel doing their best to restore order to their well-heeled corner of London. Much of the middle part of the book reads more like a drawing room romance (think trashy Edith Wharton, maybe) than a murder mystery, but the murder is never lurking too far out of sight, and I found the manners and romance stuff well enough done that I didn’t mind it. There was, of course, the issues with racism and nativism that clouds many works of this time period, but this example avoids extremism for the most part, and it’s easy to skim over that stuff. The mystery itself I found a bit lazy in its execution, ultimately, and while I found the character of Carol charming, I also found her to be on the blander end of the charm scale. No other characters really gripped me other than Lady Dalberry who I found increasingly unsettling as the book progressed. I’ve read that this one isn’t the best example of a Thynne mystery (but it’s the one that was a free offer from Dean Street Press on Kindle a few weeks ago which is why I chose it), so I may very well give this author one more shot at some future date, but this one was a solid bit of third rate entertainment. 3/5.

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A not super great shot of the outside of Loganberry Books which is one of my favorite bookstores in the world and definitely worth a visit whenever you’re in Cleveland.

So that’s the reading I’ve managed to sneak in over the past two weeks or so. I’ve been reading other things, many much more substantive than what’s described above, but busyness, etc. have kept me so far from completing anything else. Boyfriend returns to work tomorrow, though, and so my evenings will be more book-filled again and less TV/videogames/cheesecake-filled.

A Killing in Amish Country by Gregg Olsen & Rebecca Morris

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A Killing in Amish Country: Sex, Betrayal, and a Cold-Blooded Murder by Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris (2016)
St. Martin’s Press
3.5/5

Months and months ago, I made a passing comment to my boyfriend about wanting to learn more about the Amish, and this Christmas he helped make my wish come true by gifting me A Killing in Amish Country, Growing Up Amish, and, for immersion purposes, my very own Amish bonnet. I haven’t gotten to Growing Up Amish yet, though it’s highly prioritized in my stack of things to read, but I tore through A Killing Amish Country. This true crime read was a delightfully salacious as well as succinctly informative introduction to the Amish. As an added bonus, the murder which serves as the focus of Olsen and Morris’s text happened in Wayne and Holmes counties which border the county in Ohio where I live (though I was in college out of state when the murder and investigation was taking place), and this added a bit to my enjoyment of the book.

In early summer of 2009, the body of Barbara Weaver, young Amish wife and mother, was found by her niece and children while her husband, the philandering black sheep of their community, was away on a fishing trip with friends. She had been shot dead in her bed sometime in the night, and her husband Eli quickly became a prime suspect. What distinguishes this case from so many other dead wife, suspicious husband type cases (aside from the Amish factor) is that Eli had many adoring girlfriends, each of whom became entangled in the investigation as detectives tried to ascertain motive (why would Eli kill his wife rather than leaving her and his Amish community as he had done previously?), ability (had Eli already left on his fishing trip before his wife was shot?), and character (what kind of man would respond as callously as Eli was responding to the death of his wife, the mother of his children?). Olsen and Morris describe how one girlfriend emerged as an anomaly: Barb Raber.

Barb Raber is what makes this book so interesting—she quickly became, along with Eli, a prime suspect in the investigation because of her briskly subpoenaed text messages and internet search history. Together, these pieces of evidence indicated a staggering devotion to the Amish man she had met through her side job taxiing the Amish around wherever they needed to go and they almost certainly placed her at the scene of the crime. I was often disturbed, though never quite shocked, at the lengths Barb and Eli had gone to over the course of their relationship to get what they wanted, but Barb’s actions seem especially heartbreaking to me. Perhaps this is because, unlike Eli who is portrayed as a life-long deadbeat, Barb’s character and her involvement in Eli’s life seem more confusing, a tad more complex. A former Amish turned conservative Mennonite, the extent to which her religious beliefs rule her seems to vacillate wildly, as does the extent to which she seems devoted to her own husband and children. Her obsession with Eli reminds me of my 13 year old self’s obsessions with the boys I crushed on in middle school, and, indeed, the authors of this book make fleeting queries after her intellectual capacity. It’s easy to simultaneously feel both pity and revulsion toward Barb Raber.

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Athena did not find the book quite as compelling as I did.

The book ends with a trial successful insofar as verdicts are passed, sentences handed down, but the authors seem not wholly satisfied with the outcome, and they leave it to the reader to decide the extent to which justice was served several years ago in Wayne county. Evidence on all sides is laid out clearly and succinctly though, as happens in so many true crime books, the reiteration of the basic facts of the case becomes a bit repetitive, particularly during the book’s coverage of the trial. The authors seemed to fall easily into that old crime writer habit of equating beauty with innocence, lack of beauty with guilt; this is a trope I find lazy, old fashioned in the worst way. Otherwise, there’s not much in the way of psychological digging in this book, and I think a bit more of an attempt to understand, from a psychological standpoint, how the events detailed in the book came to pass would have added a great deal of depth to an otherwise rather workmanlike coverage.

All of that said, I did enjoy this book. It did a fine job explaining the divisions within the Amish community as a whole, and I very much appreciated that. As I said, I live somewhat near a large Amish community in Ohio and I went to college near another one in Western New York, so I’ve come into contact with the Amish in various ways throughout my life and so have many of my friends. Something that comes up frequently in conversation is how different all of our experiences have been—mine have been largely positive (my mother befriended an Amish woman through a support group for parents with children with Downs Syndrome, and respect for the Amish way of life was a big part of my childhood) but I’ve also heard stories of negative interactions (a friend’s boyfriend likes to tell a story of an Amish man smashing a camera his father was trying to use to take pictures of woodworking they’d been doing together). Amish communities are different in the same way our English communities are different, and the same goes for individuals within those communities. A Killing in Amish Country does a nice job of both explaining this as an academic fact and illustrating it through the case study of the Weaver murder.

I’d recommend A Killing in Amish Country as a solid, nonchallenging introduction to Amish culture and as a solid—not great—true crime read. I liked it enough to pick up Olsen’s other Amish true crime, Abandoned Prayers, which I’m looking forward to reading, so perhaps take my reservations with a grain of salt: they’re certainly not holding me back from seeking out more. 3.5/5.

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016)
The New Press
5/5

I finished this book a few days ago, and while I’ve been delaying writing a review so that my many thoughts on the subject can have time to breathe, I’ve already noticed concrete examples of ways Hochschild’s exploration of right wing sociology has altered the way I interact with my world. For example, reading this Nicholas Kristof column, I found myself taking exception to his claim that “ In America, climate change costs families beach homes; in poor countries, parents lose their children.” My mind immediately leapt to Strangers in Their Own Land, which focuses on how self-identifying Tea Party members in Louisiana live with and engage with the idea of environmental destruction in their own backyards. I thought about how not one of the people profiled by Hochschild was worrying about a vacation home, and I thought about how many of them were worried—not about starving or the despicable temptation of marrying of their daughters as child brides—but about dying too young from preventable cancers and the disappearance of self-caught fish as a source of nourishment and income. Obviously, Kristoff is being toungue-in-cheek in this column, and he’s trying to make an important point about the disparity in the ways we in America experience climate change and the way those in developing countries do, but Hochschild has given me the tools to consider the possibility that when Kristof describes how we in America face climate change, he’s talking about a rather specifically demarcated blue state America.

(As an aside, I don’t at all mean to disparage Kristof whose columns I’ve been reading for years now and whose name has a lot of pull with me. This particular column prompted me to throw some money to the charity he recommends—Catholic Relief Serives—and I’d encourage anyone who’s able to to do the same. Giving is always important but it’s especially so under a Trump presidency, I think.)

But back to the book. Strangers in Their Own Land is a sociological study, written by a self-identifying liberal, of why members of the right, specifically Tea Party members, often seem to support politicians and policies that act against their best interests. As her focus, Hochschild examines specifically environmental conditions, policies, and attitudes toward and beliefs about the environment as communicated by the subjects of her study. The results are fascinating. It surprised me—though perhaps it shouldn’t have—how many Tea Partiers interviewed by Hochschild not only profess a great love of the outdoors and knowledge regarding the ways in which the environment is being destroyed but also are active in various environmental groups and related efforts to do something to clean up the effects of oil drilling and polluting plastics factories. Yet, these same people voted in the walking disaster that was Bobby Jindal, and most of them reveal that they plan on voting for Trump, though there’s less enthusiasm about this among them than one might suppose. Hochschild’s question, and my question, is why?

Something I struggle with when reviewing books like this is how much of the thesis to give away—should I operate under the norms for reviewing fiction and avoid spoilers, or is it okay to give it all away with the understanding that it’s the evidence supporting that thesis that makes people actually read the book in the first place? I’ll split the difference and share some Hochschild’s own words, from the first chapter, about her own findings: “At play are ‘feeling rules,’ left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel—happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice” (15). In other words, our engagement with politics is a lot more emotionally driven than we probably want to think it is, but we all (duh) experience and act on our emotions differently.

This suggests that the key to bridging the divide between the left and the right lies in increasing one’s efforts to understand the emotional positions of those on the other side, a process Hochschild refers to as crossing the “empathy wall.” There’s an implicit assumption that if one’s own emotional needs aren’t being met, it’s more difficult to empathize with others in meaningful practice-oriented ways (eg if I feel like you’re behaving dismissively toward my experiences, it’s going to be really difficult and not that appealing for me to express respect and enthusiasm for your own experience-based assertions). This makes intuitive sense to me, but if it doesn’t to you, then I urge you to pick up this book, give it a shot, deeply consider its evidence.

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Hochschild’s writing is a pleasure to read, and much of the book is so compelling and engagingly written that I forgot to take notes (half the pages of my copy are covered in scribbled notes and crooked underlinings and the other half appear untouched because those are the pages I flicked through at a rapid, spellbound pace). So many of the stories she shares in this book are heartbreaking, maddening, frustrating in the extreme, but they are all worthy of knowing. She is careful to acknowledge and interrogate her own biases, and I enjoyed these sections of the book especially because, often, they were my biases, too. Many of the stories she heard left her feeling confused, sometimes a little bit scornful, and I often felt similarly, and her reminders that in such cases we must try harder to understand, not shut down, were helpful to me even as I snorted in despair at some of the Tea Partier’s most beguiling comments.

Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t ask readers to see the wisdom or logic in conservative beliefs; in fact, quite the contrary (there’s a thorough appendix providing refutations of many of the commonly held conservative beliefs about, for example, welfare recipients, tax breaks for the wealthy, and the roles of civil servants in America). Rather, this book asks readers to see the rich lives and the deeply felt emotions behind those conservative beliefs, to remember that these right wing strangers are just as fully human as strangers who are among the unemployed or refugees or otherwise deserving of our empathy and efforts to connect. In my experience, liberals (including myself on occasion) are quick to applaud liberals for putting emotional self-interest over economic self-interest, and what this book argues is that conservatives are doing much the same thing, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes, and understanding this could be a way toward understanding how to salvage our utterly gutted current political landscape (and, if we’re lucky, the actual environmental landscapes across the world as well). Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t have all the answers—it is not a road map to a Democratic victory in 2020. Still, it does have some very helpful and insightful suggestions we could all benefit from heeding to some extent at least. 5/5.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (2017)
Tin House Books
4/5

The romantic trope of the pathologically sentimental Artist and the ways in which he (it’s almost always a he) inflicts himself malignantly on those he loves to his great and passing sorrow is a trope I’ll admit I’m not overly fond of. Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons caught my eye anyway when I read its description while putting together my December BotM box—it’s the story of a wife and mother who’s disappeared, and she is perhaps dead but perhaps still living, nonetheless continuing to occupy real space in the lives of those she left behind through a series of biographical letters written before she went missing but hidden away in books scattered throughout the house. Her name is Ingrid, and she was (is?) married to a Great Author named Gil who swept her off her feet while she was very young, convinced her to have children despite her reservations, then abandoned her first emotionally and then physically in order to philander about with any number of women. The part of the novel that is not composed of her letters providing the hauntingly beautiful story of her life is told from the third person perspective of her youngest daughter, Flora, a floundering art student who idolizes Gil and who, like him, has never been able to fully accept Ingrid’s disappearance.

There’s an assortment of interesting characters in addition to the members of this family, and they all assist nicely in fleshing out the world of the novel and providing a measure of balance and something adjacent to an objective view of the family’s intensely troubled history and present, but my favorite character was the house in which everyone gathers to parse out the details of their complex situation. Called the Swimming Pavilion, the house is a converted changing rooms building at the seaside in England, a relic of Gil’s family’s former wealth. It’s one of those literary houses that the reader must appreciate in its uniqueness so that all the other parts of the book—all the characters moving through it and the events it shelters—can have their full impact, and I love it when houses operate this way in books, so this was a big part of my enjoyment of this story which contained, otherwise, a cast of characters I found largely unsympathetic though always surprising and engaging. I won’t say more about it here because discovering the house’s nooks and crannies and learning how it weathers over time is, I think, a major part of the joy of reading this book.

At times, the novel’s sentimentality became too much for me as it leaked over from Gil’s characterization into the plot’s denouement. (When I read the line “Baby shoes, never worn,” I heaved a literal groan.) While Fuller makes something brilliantly new from a familiar framework, I did wish at times that there had been a smidge less reliance on Gil’s (and Ingrid’s) magnetic attraction for symbolic gestures and interpretations of their own lives; this trick became a bit wearing after a while and I was ready to move on long before they were.

That said, I enjoyed this novel immensely, I confidently recommend it, and I look forward to seeking out and reading Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days just as soon as I can. Swimming Lessons had an early release through BotM, but it’ll be available for general purchase in February and I’d urge people to get in line for a copy. 4/5 stars.

Anne Perry: The Murder of the Century by Peter Graham

I wrote in my last post (so, about ten minutes ago) about my reading resolutions for this new year, but I’ve also got a vaguely committed to resolve to really write more about what I’ve been reading as well. I made a similar promise to myself (and to anyone who reads this thing) last fall that, clearly, did not work out, but no harm in trying again, I suppose. And so, here below is my review of the first book I finished reading this month. Perhaps sometime soon I’ll get around to making a post summing up my thoughts about my cumulative reading list from last year, but I’m really going to focus primarily on keeping up with what I’m reading now, so I make no promises about any sort of upcoming “Best of 2016” kind of round-up.

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Anne Perry: The Murder of the Century by Peter Graham (2011, 2013)
Skyhorse Publishing
4/5

It’s been a few years since I’ve read my only Anne Perry novel, A Christmas Secret, about which I remember little other than that it tended toward the sickly sweet side of things, unmoving but unobjectionable as a technically proficient bit of Christmas fluff. As I do to most of the authors whose books I read, I Googled her name at some point in the reading process and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the creator of this religion-heavy, heart-warming volume was, herself, a convicted murderer; I was even more pleasantly surprised to learn I could have my pick of books on the subject of said murder.
The one I settled on was Peter Graham’s Anne Perry: The Murder of the Century, I think because it was the most recent, or perhaps it was the highest rated on Amazon, or maybe it was just the cheapest copy I found available. I don’t remember. I ordered it immediately in the rush of joyful anticipation of such a perfect topic, and then I let the book languish on my shelf until this Christmastime when, in lieu of enduring another of Perry’s Christmas mysteries, I decided to celebrate the season literarily with Graham’s thorough, thoughtful, and perfectly salacious overview of the life and trial of Anne Perry (then Juliet Hulme) and her childhood best friend, Pauline Parker.
Graham starts with the murder itself, meticulously including seemingly every detail of that afternoon when Anne and Pauline lured Pauline’s mother into a secluded area of a park far from their homes and bashed her head in with a school stocking-wrapped brick. It’s gory, horrifying stuff, and as more and more details are unveiled and laid plainly before the reader in frank, uncompromising prose, the question of how such a thing could have come to pass looms more and more urgently. The crime did not occur in a fit of rage; neither did it occur as a chance result of insanity. It was carefully premeditated by both girls, but at whose urging is a point which remains unclear for most of the book and which is an arguable point still as Graham’s study draws to a close.
To help the reader draw her own conclusions, Graham backs up after presenting us with the facts of the murder, and he traces the biographies of both girls and their families: we learn who their parents are and how they wound up in New Zealand, we hear all about the infancies and girlhoods of the girls, and we’re told in almost too much detail the circumstances of their friendship. This is all important not just in gaining a personal understanding of the perpetrators and victim of the crime which is this book’s focus; it’s also all important because of the trial which, hinging as it did upon notions of insanity, sexuality, and class, had at its heart the biographical narratives of criminals and victims alike.
Graham is careful throughout to be respectful of all those involved, including Anne Perry and Pauline Parker, both of whom were still alive and well when this book was published and who appear to continue on into this new year as well. No detail is spared in his coverage of the depravity and the unavoidable disagreeableness of the two girls as girls, but he is also thorough in his explorations of psychiatric reasons pertaining to how these girls became, at such an early age, so remarkably depraved and horrible to be around. He is also sympathetic to the other players in the story including the girls’ parents (and these are some pieces of work, let me tell you), the detectives and lawyers involved in the case, and the people close to the women today.
I very much enjoyed this book, though it took me a while to finish as sometimes the setting of the various scenes involved became a bit repetitious and I had to set it aside for a few days every now and then to keep from growing bored with the entire topic. I also felt that Graham’s discussion of other critical works on the crime and trial, particularly his panning of Parker & Hulme: A Lesbian View by Glamuzina and Laurie (which argues, among other things, that the “delusions” of religious grandeur communicated by the two girls are similar to Maori religious beliefs and considered legitimate by members of the Maori community) to be too brief and dismissive. Overall, though, a solid foray into New Zealand true crime, a fascinating look at one of the biggest sellers in the cozy mystery genre, and just a solid, well told story. 4/5 stars.

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My mom’s German Shepard, Lucas, also developed a keen interest in the trial of Anne Perry.

How a Library Starts a New Year

The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever successfully kept is the one I made last year, suffering a dismal hangover but trying to keep up some semblance of good cheer at a New Year’s Day brunch with friends: the resolution was to always finish the toast that came served with my breakfast when I went out to eat. It was a prefect resolution because it had a very manageable and absolutely attainable goal, clearly defined parameters, built-in cheats (Don’t want toast? Don’t go out to eat! Want to go out to eat but still don’t want toast? Order something that doesn’t come with toast!), and flexibility: doggie bags are always an option. With the exception of the time I spilled coffee all over the little saucer of uneaten toast left before me, my resolution was a resounding success. This experience has left me buoyed to make other resolutions, but I’ve had trouble deciding on what, exactly, they should be.

But, now three days into the New Year, I think I’ve decided on one, and it’s book-related, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing about it here (I say immediately after rambling on for a paragraph about toast eating).

Essentially, my plan is as follows. Each month, I’ll attempt to tackle one or two letters from my fiction shelves (and by letters I mean according to the first letter of the author’s last name. So As include Alcott, Algren, etc. while Bs include Buroughs, Bronte, etc) by a) reading one book from the letter and b) getting rid of at least one book from the letter. I have a frightful lot of books on my shelves that I haven’t read, and while some of them are newer acquisitions I haven’t gotten around to yet, others have been languishing for years, some for nearly a decade, and I need to force myself to be honest about what will and will not get read. I also have a number of books sitting around that I have read and which, for a number of reasons, I have no intention of ever reading again, and these are fair game for the culling, too. I’m also going to apply the same concept to my nonfiction shelves, though I’ll be going less by letter and more by what catches my fancy; still, for each book read, I’m going to choose a book on its shelf to go in the donate pile.

bookshelves

The first two shelves that should get tackled this month.

Basically, the goal is to winnow down my TBR list both through reading and through being honest about what I’m not going to read. I’m also going to try to be better about not making as many impulse Amazon purchases as I have in the last two years or so because a) it’s gotten a bit out of hand since I’ve had the disposable income to make it a frequently indulged habit, and b) I want to be able to feel less guilt when I go ham in actual bookshops because I won’t have the overshadowing knowledge that there’s likely a book package coming in the mail for me as I check out with my stack of books in hand. I thought about striving to limit the number of books I bring into the library by assigning myself a monthly limit or something like that, but it’s harder to track that sort of goal as I subscribe to Book of the Month, frequently receive books as gifts year round, love keeping current with a number of contemporary authors, etc. It seems easier to just be a stickler about getting rid of books.

And thus is my New Year’s resolution, 2017 edition. In the past, I’ve made informal attempts to be sure to incorporate more writers from different backgrounds, more recently published works, more nonfiction, et cetera, and I’ve had a lot of success in widening my horizons by just sort of casually committing to different things. I wanted to be a bit more formal in this goal, though, because it’s going to be, I think, a touch more difficult for me to add focus rather than breadth in my reading patterns.