Monday, March 23, 2015

The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries is Marilyn Johnson's first book.  It is the second book by Marilyn Johnson that I have read and reviewed here on the blog.  I previously read and reviewed This Book Is Overdue.  Her research for The Dead Beat and the interesting obituaries of librarians that she found led her to the subject of her follow up book, which was This Book Is Overdue.

This book was a little slow to start, but it sucked me in around the part about how the New York Times dealt with 9/11 and its resultant obituaries or "portraits" as the paper dubbed its articles about the myriad missing but not yet confirmed dead.  Indeed this particular section was rather poignant.  Johnson is a fan of obituaries--she reads obits from several newspapers, including some from Great Britain.  She has even attended an international obituarists conference, an eclectic gathering of both obituary writers and the fans who faithfully, obsessively read them; though it isn't clear if her attendance was solely as a fan, for a research for her book, or a little bit of both.

The book starts with an account of the conference and those she meets there and an analysis of the obituary as a writing form.  This is followed by chapters in which she interviews obituary editors from several American newspapers followed by interviews with editors and writers of British obituaries and the differences between the American tradition versus the British tradition in obituaries (yes, there is a difference in style, structure and tone).

Reading this book, I've realized that Johnson's obituaries differ widely from those with which I'm familiar.  For example, the paid obituaries that run in the Lebanon Daily News are that which Johnson terms "paid death notices" (although, my definition of "death notice" differs from hers as well...).  In fact Johnson finds the rote details, such as the survivors list or the deceased's birth and death dates, shared in these obits tedious.  Meanwhile, this is the information I find most valuable.  However, my reading perspective differs from Johnson's in that I often read obits from the genealogist's perspective for the genealogical information that can be gleaned from such items, while Johnson is reading obits more for the pleasure of reading and for the news.

This was an interesting, eye opening book.  However, I enjoyed This Book Is Overdue more than I enjoyed this one.  I'm looking forward to reading Johnson's latest book, Lives In Ruins.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dear Mr. Darcy by Amanda Grange

I discovered the book Dear Mr. Darcy by Amanda Grange through a patron request (it's one of the pitfalls of working in a library... you see all these interesting books come through and you have to read them).  The author has several books written from the perspective of Jane Austen characters.  This book was readable, but there was something missing.  You know how some books just hit a point and all of a sudden they just suck you in and all you want to do is read and breathe that book until it's over?  Well, this book didn't really do that, and I was disappointed..

The novel is set up as a series of letters written between several characters from Pride and Prejudice, such as Mr. Darcy, a couple of his cousins and aunts, Mr. Bingley and his family, the Bennetts and their aunt Gardiner and (unfortunately) Mr. Wickham (UGH.  Can't stand him.) and his opportunist friends, but we won't talk about the latter two.  Let's forget I even mentioned the 'W' name.

The story begins in 1795, a couple of years prior to the main events of Pride and Prejudice, and so we meet Mr. Darcy just as his father dies and the responsibility for upkeep of the estate and raising his sister, Georgiana, falls to Darcy.  The story continues through the years, elaborating on events occurring prior to Austen's novel and the events of Pride and Prejudice.  This novel also continues a few pages beyond the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy and hints at the futures of the two remaining Bennet sisters, Mary and Kitty.

Unfortunately the example of this book does not recommend Grange's others.  I was really looking forward to reading this book, but ultimately it didn't live up to my expectations.  Maybe my expectations were too high?  The author's writing is not the strongest, and I couldn't overcome my suspicion that while the author tried her best to hew as close as possible to the language and customs of the time period, in the end there were anachronisms that still slipped through that served to take me out of the story.  There were many letters that skipped greetings altogether, there were some letters in which one character used the word "coz" for "cousin," which really didn't ring true to the time period, and then there was the glaring impropriety of the content of many of the letters in which more than one character details a refused proposal.  This was probably the part that grated most on my nerves--the fact that it seemed almost everyone knew everyone else's business regarding offers of marriage, such as who had one and from whom, even those offers that were refused, especially those that were refused, wouldn't have been aired about as they were in this story.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Monday, March 9, 2015

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into A Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

I was looking up a book about genealogy on Amazon a while ago, and as those things often do, that book led to another book led to this one, I think.  Or something like that.  I requested Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into A Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg through ILL.  I know that I always say that non-fiction and I don't get along, but lately that seems to be all that I'm reading.  And honestly stories like this that essentially are some sort of genealogical scavenger hunt or detective story tend to suck me in.  I like them because I have an interest in genealogy and have become by my own family's historian and keeper of the family tree--and anyone who has done any long term genealogical research knows that every family tree has its share of mysteries.

This story begins with the roundabout revelation of a decades old family secret.  At a meeting with her doctor and social worker, Luxenberg's mother, Beth, casually mentions a sister.  This information perplexes the social worker who was under the impression that Beth was an only child, so the social worker calls Luxenberg's older sister, who in turns calls Luxenberg with this piece of perplexing news.  Beth's sister was a secret that Beth kept from her children and from other family members, co-workers and friends as well.  Beth always referred to herself as an only child to anyone and everyone she talked to.  The author's account of his mother finding myriad ways to work into myriad conversations with family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike that she was an only child reminds me of the old saying, "the lady doth protest too much."

The revelation of the existence of a heretofore unknown aunt four years before his mother's death was the first crack in the family secret.  Inexplicably the author never questioned his mother about her sister, and thus, the woman goes to her grave believing her secret is still buried.  It's not until some time after his mother's death that Luxenberg decides to do some digging to find out who his mother's sister was and why his mother kept her secret so deeply buried from so many people for so long.  But the more he digs, the more he unearths perplexing bits of information.  The hunt leads to the harrowing story of Annie Cohen, a woman whose story and identity still remains partially obscured by the passage of time and the destruction of records, photos and other documents.  Annie was two or three years her sister Beth's junior and life for Annie, from her birth, was not easy.  She was born with a deformed leg that was later amputated when she was teen.  And she was nebulously diagnosed with some form of mental impairment that later in some way led to mental illness that then led to her forced institutionalization when her problems became too big and too disturbing for her poverty stricken family to handle themselves at home.

Annie's Ghosts is Luxenberg's attempt to reconstruct Annie's story--from her birth and her first two decades at home with her family followed by three decades of her largely anonymous and forgotten life in an institution--and to place Annie's diagnoses in both the context of history and today's modern understanding and treatment of physical impairment, mental impairment, and mental illness.  As these things often do, the more Luxenberg pulls at the threads to unravel his mother's secret, the more secrets come to light and in turn illuminate his mother's secret.  His research leads him to the old country where his maternal grandparents were born to shed light on the customs and culture of the day and how it influenced the way the family dealt with his aunt's difficulties.  Luxenberg also uncovers the unspeakably tragic story of his mother's estranged cousin's survival during the Holocaust.  This is at its heart an account of family history colliding with world history and how these events shaped a family for generations.

The most interesting parts of this book were the parts in which Luxenberg shared his hunt for stories, photos, and other documentation regarding his aunt's life, his parents' marriage, and his family's history.  There is also the account of his mother's cousin Holocaust experience that is at once both heartbreaking and unbelievable--the story itself is almost like a movie. By necessity Luxenberg also examines the treatment and history of mental illness in America specifically in the early part of the twentieth century--these parts tend to drag a little bit.  Overall it's an engrossing, fascinating story.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey

A couple of reviews ago, I mentioned that there was a book I was reading that was taking forever and a day to finish.  Well, this is that book.  I finally finished it, and even though it felt like it went on and on (and on), I'm glad I finished reading it.  I feel I really learned a lot.  And now this review may go on forever and a day because I have a lot to say.  I believe I first learned of this book when I read a review about it in Time magazine or Book Page or some place like that.  It's a fascinating and interesting read.

When I was a young girl I read a lot more non-fiction than I do now.  I read a lot of Greek mythology, fairy tales, and books about queens and royalty.  I remember there was book about Joan of Arc that I borrowed from my library (and which is still in the collection here!).  This fascination with royal history and the customs, traditions, and history that go along with it has carried over into my adulthood.  While I was reading this book about Isabella, the queen of Castile, I was thinking that while I was aware of Isabella (and her husband, Ferdinand), I don't think I really read much about the Spanish royalty.  I remember I read books about the queens of England mostly, but not so much about the royalty of other countries.  For most followers of royalty, it is probably common knowledge that Queen Victoria of Great Britain was called the grandmother of Europe's royalty because many of her children (and subsequently their descendants) married into royal houses all over Europe and as far afield as Russia.  This book about Isabella mentions that Isabella herself is also an ancestor of many of the European royal families as well and that was something that was new to me that stuck in my mind.

This is an in depth biographical analysis of Isabella, her life and times.  It begins with her uncertain and not very well documented childhood--she was not born to be queen after all.  She had an elder brother who would inherit the throne and his heirs were in turn expected to rule Spain.  As a result the details of her birth and her childhood are mostly lost to time and history.  However, as Isabella grew up, it became increasingly clear that her brother (and his heiress, whose paternity was called into question) was not fit to rule Spain.  In a time when women didn't really have much of a say in how their lives shook out--these decisions, especially ones regarding the marriages of royal daughters, were left up to the family patriarchs.  But the men in Isabella's family could not be trusted to handle this responsibility well, and so Isabella took matters into her own hands by secretly negotiating for herself a marriage (and political alliance) with Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the neighboring kingdom of Aragon.  The union would result in a unified Spain.  A few years after her marriage, Isabella essentially engineered a bloodless coup in the wake of her brother the king's death.  And she did so in such a way that cut out her husband, Ferdinand, completely from power in Castile.  By this point, Ferdinand had shown his true stripes: he was unfaithful, he was resentful, he lived apart from his wife for extended periods of time despite her pleas to come return to her, and he was a petty, short sighted sovereign, who was not at all interested in the governmental and ecclesiastical reforms that Isabella was determined to bring to bear.

As queen Isabella spent much of her reign at war--first with Portugal to secure her kingdom's shared borders with that country, then within her own kingdom to bring stability, security, safety, and justice to her own lands after decades of lawlessness, chaos and corruption, followed by war in the south to reclaim those Spanish lands from the Muslim Nasrid dynasty, and then after that abroad in Italy and elsewhere to halt the Ottoman empire's roll over Europe.  In addition to ruling her own kingdoms (Castile and Leon), she also led the joint kingdoms' (Castile and Aragon) international diplomacy by negotiating treaties, funding overseas exploration, and arranging marriages for her children.  She educated and trained herself to become a better ruler, versed in the Latin that was then the diplomatic language of the day.  And she advocated for the education of women by her actions and example--her daughters and her ladies-in-waiting and other women at court all received lessons along side Isabella--a precedent that soon spread throughout Europe's elite and ruling dynasties.  A highly prescient woman in treaty negotiations and familial fortunes and relations, Isabella saw the importance of exploring and colonizing the New World years before other sovereigns did.

For all her successes and favorable qualities, Isabella was also human, and she had her flaws.  In her religious zeal, she left a tragic, cruel, and heinous legacy in the form of the Spanish Inquisition, an institution established at her behest for the purposes of the salvation of souls, a duty she felt deeply.  It was a legacy that would have far reaching consequences for hundreds of years after Isabella's death.  By the same token her religious devotion also lead to her efforts to reform the Catholic Church, to root out its inherent corruption and nepotism, but in these efforts she was opposed by the pope himself with whom she soon began an open feud.

The book's chapters tend to focus on individual overarching themes of Isabella's life and reign.  For example, there are chapters detailing the decade long re-conquering of the last vestiges of Muslim Spain that she spearheaded, her financing of Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492 and her negotiation of the marriages of her daughters.  The book's strength is when it hews closer to the life of its subject and her family than when it meanders off on a historical tangent such as the Muslim conquest of Spain and Europe.  This is when the text gets bogged down and when it feels as if the book goes on and on.  While this book does tend to drag on, I can't seem to recommend it enough--it's a contradiction, I know.  I suppose it's because I was really impressed with Isabella's character, her accomplishments, and her independence.  In comparison to many of her male counterparts in power at the time, well, the men all look egregiously entitled, petty, and incompetent--even her own husband.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Napkin Notes: Make Lunch Meaningful, Life Will Follow by Garth Callaghan

Napkin Notes by Garth Callaghan is a book that my grandmother ran across in one of her magazines back in December.  But before she could give me the title, she lost the list.  Then she found it again sometime in January.  So the library got a copy, and I passed it along to my grandmother so she could read it, and then she returned it to me, and I ended up reading it before I returned it to the library.  My grandmother and I both had the same reaction to the book, which I will share later in the review.

When his daughter was young, Garth Callaghan began including napkin notes in the school lunches he packed for her every day.  At first the notes were thrown in sporadically, but when he realized how much his daughter looked forward to them, the notes became a constant and essential component of her lunches.  The notes were a means for father to connect with daughter in the midst of the school day during the school year when his time with her was limited due to school and work commitments.

When Callaghan is diagnosed with cancer, the notes take on a whole new meaning, and he makes a commitment to make sure there will be a napkin note for his daughter's lunch every day from now until graduation day.  Even if he isn't here to put it in the lunches.  As a result he writes over 800 notes.

Throughout the book Callaghan shares his cancer journey from initial diagnosis through his treatments to remission to subsequent cancer diagnoses (yes, plural) to finally a terminal prognosis.  He shares the financial and spiritual struggles he and his family endured with the onset of his cancer as well as the growing response to his story about the napkin notes as it snowballs into national coverage in mainstream news outlets, viral online viewings, and multiple interviews (none of which I was aware until my grandmother told me about the book, so I don't know where I was when all this was going on).  Interspersed throughout are the selected napkin notes that have appeared in his daughter's past school lunches and the life lessons he wishes to teach her.

This is a small book.  It's easy to read, and it goes pretty fast.  You can easily knock it out in a day (I did).  There are some heart-wrenching passages to read, so you may want to keep some tissues handy.  That being said both my grandmother and I had the same reaction to the book: "meh. it was okay."  It was neither the best nor the *worst book I've ever read.

I'm not a big fan of anecdote type books in which inspirational quotes or life lessons are imparted through anecdotes about life experiences.  After a while that part got repetitive, and I found I often skipped over the napkin note quotes and stuck mostly to the prose chapters of the book.  Something else that I didn't get was the constant job hopping/job hunting that Callaghan did.  Unless it wasn't as constant in reality as it appeared in the book--which was something that I found confusing also: the timeline and time context of the events as they occurred.  Then I got to the epilogue, and my reaction: what. the. hell.  I don't get it.  I still don't get it and it's completely jarring and doesn't gel with the rest of the book.  What is the point?  The epilogue almost ruins the entire book.  And I still don't get it.  If anybody has read this book, and gets the epilogue, maybe they can explain it in the comments (or if they had a different opinion about the epilogue, please share that too because it bothers me and did I mention that I still don't get it?).

*hello, Into The Heart Of Darkness; I am still bitter about the two required readings I had to do of that book because I had to write two papers on it.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie