Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence, by Carol Berkin
Berkin writes an overview of how women--white, African-American, Native American--made vital contributions to the Revolutionary War effort.
This is as much an intellectual thought piece (if one can call it intellectual, heh) as it is a review.
Reading "Revolutionary Mothers" led me to ask myself a difficult question about the value I ascribe to the study of different contributions to history: is study of the canon or of minority viewpoints more valuable?
My major thought on the book is this: it is an excellent introduction to womens' contributions to the Revolutionary War and to the positions women held in society during that time period. It is also a compelling argument for the value of womens' work. (Women of the Revolution were the farmers, the laundresses, the nurses, the cooks. Their performances of these mundane chores allowed the men to give their full attention to "grander" endeavours.) Be all that as it may, however, I still found the book relatively dry. My exploration into why I feel that this is so led me into my consideration of the question above.
I took a course on women in American history during my junior year of college, and spent a great deal of time studying this time period for an independent study project on the marriage of John and Abigail Adams. I considered how notions of the Republican mother (a mother who makes sure her sons become good citizens of the state) and the new companionate marriage (husbands and wives as loving companions and friends) changed the way women were considered in society, oftentimes giving womens' roles more value than they previously had (even though the new views didn't come close to completely abolishing the old ones). To me, the study of Abigail's contribution to history via her dialogues with John--the way she encouraged new notions of womanhood--is infinitely more interesting and intellectually valuable than the study of the farming and childcare tasks that she did. With this particular experience of study under my belt, I am therefore willing to recommend "Revolutionary Mothers" as a good introduction to womens' roles during the period, but with the hope that readers will eventually further their studies to consider the intellectual history of the period. As I pressed myself as to why I considered study of intellectual movements more valuable than studies of personal minority experience. In saying such a thing, am I furthering the notion that only men make valuable contributions to society? The intellectual sphere, after all, has been dominated by men for centuries. As a feminist/advocate for women, this gives me pause.
The conclusion that I have come to is that I must stand by my conviction that the study of intellectual history is indeed the most valuable study. I realized, with great relief, that this idea did not conflict with my feminist sensibilities. What I am saying is simply that the intellectual sphere is the most important sphere in society. It is the sphere from which all the others descend. It is not saying that men are necessarily the only important contributors to society, only that due to the society of our past, they traditionally have been the most able to. Minority groups (those who are not white males) are perfectly capable of making exceedingly valuable contributions to history, as we have seen throughout the centuries; fate and society have simply conspired to put men in the best positions to do so for the longest time. Therefore, let us study the work that they have done first. I believe that we can objectively say that the history of ideas has had the farthest reaching impact. This should not, however, remove our and our educational institutions' responsibilities to educate on the minority experience. To not do so would be to miss out on vital pieces of our history; one would only have a big chunk of the puzzle instead of the whole thing were s/he to do so. An educational system that bases itself in the canon is well advised, but it is equally well advised to branch out and give students equal time with voices that weren't the loudest.
Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, by Sean Carroll
Carroll's book is an introduction to the newly emergent science of "Evo Devo", or, evolutionarily developmental biology--the use of the study of different organisms' genetic codes to determine the evolutionary history of animal life on Earth.
Frankly, I was disappointed in this book. It promised to be an in-depth look at a fascinating new application of genetics. Carroll argues that Evo Devo is one of the most exciting fields of science currently under study. Discoveries of different clusters of genes that appear in multiple species have allowed scientists to construct increasingly plausible evolutionary trees, as which genes appear where can show which branches of species split off from whom when. As cool as the ideas in this book are, I ended it believing that I could have gotten as much out of a ten page "Scientific American" article on the subject as I did of this three-hundred page book. I felt that after Carroll was done making his major points and explanations, the rest of the book was simply excess of gee-whiz examples of what he was writing about. Don't get me wrong--it is a gee-whiz kind of science, as much of modern biology is. And Carroll is obviously an incredibly enthusiastic scientist. However, he seemed to let his enthusiasm often run away with him. I also wish that he had been clearer with the technical aspects of the science. This is a book, assumedly, for the intelligent layperson, but as a (hopefully) intelligent layperson myself, I felt lost once he got into those parts of the book. The language wasn't clear enough, and the diagrams proved especially mystifying without a linguistic grasp of what they were supposed to represent. Considering that the part of the book where these passages appeared led to everything that came aftger, it was especially frustrating to me not to be clear on the concepts. (Perhaps this is a source of my waning attention with the later chapters of the book.) In sum, I'd recommend seeking out some information on Evo Devo, because it is indeed really cool stuff, but unless you're really interested, find an introductory article on it instead.
The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away, edited by Elissa Schappell and Jenny Offill
As the title indicates, an edited collection of essays by various women writers recounting the endings of very dear friendships.
There are any number of essay compilations on the market today on every subject under the sun. I am very glad that this one was published, and I feel like it fills an often-unacknowledged void in our culture, which is the recognition that womens' friendships aren't always peaches-and-cream lovefests between sisters. Human psychology is too messy for the proliferation of those. The authors of these essays would argue that womens' friendships can't be powerful and amazing and intense even if they aren't sugary sweet, and even if they are closer to their deathbed than they are to their birth. Many of the essays in this collection are poignant; others are devastating. Almost all are brilliant psychological portraits of the necessary of work and general psychological meshing that must go into maintaining a friendship. Needs and desires of the two individuals must come together, an often difficult achievement in any sort of relationship. This is some of the truest memoir I've read. Particular standouts in this collection are "Other Women" by Kate Bernheimer and "The Kindness of Strangers", by Jennifer Gilmore. Also intriguing are the two essays by Heather Abel and Emily Chenoweth, depicting each woman's view of the dissolution of their friendship with each other.
One final, lighter question in relation to this book: what is up with some cover designers? I read this book in galley form, courtesy of Rizzoli. The cover then had photo-booth pictures of pairs of friends floating away through a wide expanse of blue sky--a really evocative image, I thought. The actual published book has a woman's silhouette against an orange background. That's it. What gives?
The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin>
Nine-year old Katie Mackey disappears one summer evening, and a community probes its own soul as it looks for the kidnapper.
I've resisted writing this review for a long time, knowing that I would have nothing nice to say, so I might as well not say anything at all. Unfortunately, this novel is bearing the brunt of all of my frustrations regarding overly praised novels that really are not that good. I picked up a galley copy of this during one of my slow Sundays at work, figuring that it probably wouldn't be great but would most likely be a nice day's diversion. And, after all, it was coated in accolades.
Well, I wonder if the authors of those accolades formed the committee that seems to have written this book. I don't mean to say that I really believe "Lee Martin" is a psuedonym for a group of anonymous authors, but this novel in a way reminds me of a sitcom that has too many cooks in the kitchen--completely derivative, meant to appeal to so many audiences at once that it ends up devoid of anything real. Everything from the colors of the cover to the irrelevant title to the subject matter is meant to appeal to those who liked "The Lovely Bones" and/or the many stories of disappeared angel girls that are populating the news lately. The novel just screams this fact. Everything about it is stock: the angelic blonde kidnap victim, the villain named Raymond, and--especially--the sensitive lonely man outcast. I found him particularly insufferable, as his main function in the story is to elicit the reader's sympathy, asking for pity that the story does nothing real to provide. This character also has a habit of saying things to the effect of: "You think you know where this story is going? You think I know who I am? Well, you don't, so be quiet and listen." Well, yes, actually, I did turn out to know exactly who he was, and exactly how the story was going to turn out. Rarely have I read such a shamefully derivative novel, and I am perhaps angered by this book more than I am similar ones I might come across because of the constant insistence--through a character's own mouth, no less!--that this book is different from all the rest. It, above all the others, is special. Martin's editor must have thought that s/he'd hit a gold mine with this novel in terms of sales, but it's a sad state of affairs when such an empty piece of work is not only given overstated importance by others, but more outrageously, by itself.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
A woman named Kathy H. reflects on a childhood spent amidst the beauty and the mysteries of an isolated private school, Hailsham, and comes to terms with the difficult truths behind both her birth and her fate.
First of all--avoid all other reviews of this book! That's not meant to be an egotistical comment, but a friend/fellow reader and I agreed that many of them carelessly give away the central mystery of the novel, which is an intriguing one that exists both in the fantastical and a bit in the metaphysical. I've never read Ishiguro before, but I was highly impressed by the terrific eerieness that shimmers throughout the novel. The most casual encounters become creepy incidents, and the smallest moments become loaded with meaning. I don't know that I've encountered another author who has better been able to convey how the tiniest words and gestures can significantly affect two given individuals with very particular psychologies and histories. I also found the character of Kathy's friend Ruth one of the more intriguing characters I've come across in a while. She is both manipulative and bossy, yet incredibly vulnerable. There is no reason given for these characteristics--none of the typical bad childhood at the hands of monstrous parents--and I found this quite refreshing. I definitely recommend this novel for anyone who likes good fiction and/or creepy stories, particularly with hints of the mysterious or fantastical.
X-posted to my own journal.