Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

8857310Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

Review:

Like I said in my review of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell is the definition of my audiobook wheelhouse.  Funny but substantive non-fiction with public radio roots?  Always, all the time please.  This is the third book of hers I’ve listened to but sadly, it’s my least favorite.

I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why.  The problem may be me – I didn’t know much about Hawaiian history and didn’t have mental scaffolding to hang the narrative on.  I don’t think that’s everything, though, as Vowell isn’t at her best.  While there are some personal stories they aren’t as funny or interesting as in Assassination Vacation.  The history is outlined and gentle fun is poked, but it lacks the oomph of previous efforts.

Thinking about it, maybe Vowell is pulling her punches out of respect to Hawaiian culture.  It’s much easier to lampoon your own, and the last thing a marginalized people need is more skewering.  So in that sense, yea!  I’ll take a drop in laughs for that if I must.

Beyond the content this is my least favorite audiobook of hers so far.  It’s not Vowell’s fault, she’s as lovely as ever, but the supporting cast is large and each person only gets a few lines.  And despite the large cast it sounded like there was only one woman voice actor doing several roles, which confused my wandering attention.

All in all… enh.  Not awful, but I expected much better.

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War Diaries: 1939-1945 by Astrid Lindgren

Translated by Sarah Death
UK title: A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945

Synopsis:

29771643Before she became internationally known for her Pippi Longstocking books, Astrid Lindgren was an aspiring author living in Stockholm with her family at the outbreak of the Second World War. The diaries she kept throughout the hostilities offer a civilian’s, a mother’s, and an aspiring writer’s unique account of the devastating conflict. She emerges as a morally courageous critic of violence and war, as well as a deeply sensitive and astute observer of world affairs. We hear her thoughts about rationing, blackouts, the Soviet invasion of Finland, and the nature of evil, as well as of her personal heartbreaks, financial struggles, and trials as a mother and writer.

Illustrated with family photographs, newspaper clippings, and facsimile pages, Lindgren’s diaries provide an intensely personal and vivid account of Europe during the war.

Review:

I’m not a World War II buff but when I do read about the period I like learning about everyday people and what it was like to live at the time.  Troop movements, negotiations between allies? Enh. But give me diaries and letters by those on the homefront and I am there.

Lindgren’s account is a very specific and detailed view of the war from neutral Sweden, a fact that helps it transcend narratives I’ve read before. Instead of being stuck in London for the Blitz or tied to a German account of of the fighting we get to peek at all sides from a relatively safe Scandinavian perch.  She pasted in newspaper articles about the war and fills in the spaces with information about Lindgren’s own life – making do with rations, working censoring letters, listing what her children received for Christmas.

The specificity takes us back to that scary time but she still pulls back and looks at things with a wider lens.  These parts stuck with me the most as I write this in November 2016 as global political balance seems to be deteriorating by the day. “One dreads opening the newspaper each day,” Lindgren writes, and I can’t help but agree with her.

As long as you’re only reading about it in the paper you can sort of avoid believing it, but when you read in a letter that ‘both Jacques’s children were killed in the occupation of Luxembourg’ or something like that, it suddenly brings it home, quite terrifyingly. Poor human race: when I read their letters I’m staggered by the amount of sickness and distress, grief, unemployment, poverty and despair that can be fitted into this wretched earth.

It’s a wonderful, intensely readable look at World War II from a unique perspective.  A hearty recommend, especially for fans of diaries and homefront history.

Thanks to Yale University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Synopsis:

9780062363596_b2357Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

Review:

There is so much history that we don’t know about.  Some of it is hinted at in textbooks – conversations that may have taken place in closed rooms, people who may have helped behind the scenes.  These are things we can imagine not knowing.  But that there was a group of African-American women that worked as mathematicians at NASA, plotting our course to the stars?  It’s an unknown unknown – in media depictions I don’t think I’ve seen any people of color at all.

apollo13-mccmovie
Mission Control packed with white guys in the movie Apollo 13

All too often women and people of color are left out of our histories.  Hidden Figures works to fix that.

There is way too much I didn’t know about the Jim Crow South.  I mean, I knew Virginia was segregated, but I had no idea of the crazy stuff they did to keep it that way:

In 1936 a black student from Richmond named Alice Jackson Houston applied to the University of Virginia to study French but was denied admission.  The NAACP sued on her her behalf, and in response the state of Virginia set up a tuition reimbursement fund, subsidizing the graduate educations of black students in any place but Virginia.

I didn’t know that executive orders slowly desegregated the military and government jobs over time, providing an opening for all black people to get into more skilled professions.  Other things that I already knew – minorities being shut out of the housing market, women not being promoted as quickly or paid on par with men – came to life.

Shettley focuses the the story through many lenses.  What was it like to be a woman at Langley?  How about a black man?  How were those issues compounded in the case of the black women “computers”?  And what additional difficulties did the world outside of work present?  Intersectionality, I love thee.

I’m having a hard time coming up with more to say because I just want to press Hidden Figures into your hands and say, “read this.”  Learning about Dorothy Vaughan, who moved away from her family for a chance at a job that would fulfill her while providing for her children, inspires me.  I want my 10 year old niece to read about Katherine Johnson, a natural mathematician that took every opportunity that presented itself, along with a bunch that didn’t.  All the women in this book smashed ceilings, and “the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.”

So the content gets high marks from me.  The writing is good, more journalistic than narrative non-fiction-y.  So if you like your fact to read like a thriller this may not be the best choice for you.  In fact you may just want to wait for the movie. Yes, movie!  I’m so excited, because everyone will see that NASA also looked like this:

MV5BYWJjZmE3MDItNDlkMi00YzY5LTkyYjItZTE5MjdkM2ZmYzZmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc2MTUyMTc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,956_AL_
Scene from Hidden Figures, forthcoming

Shetterly has done us all a service by researching and speaking with these amazing women while they’re still here to tell their stories.  A must read for NASA history buffs, and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the space program, civil rights, or pioneering women.

Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

In Our Own Hands edited by Brian H. Greenwald and Joseph J. Murray

Synopsis:

27837529This collection of new research examines the development of deaf people’s autonomy and citizenship discourses as they sought access to full citizenship rights in local and national settings. Covering the period of 1780–1970, the essays in this collection explore deaf peoples’ claims to autonomy in their personal, religious, social, and organizational lives and make the case that deaf Americans sought to engage, claim, and protect deaf autonomy and citizenship in the face of rising nativism and eugenic currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Review:

Author Sara Novic has written some wonderful essays about Deafness, including this one about the history and significance of American Sign Language (ASL). Reading it opened my eyes to a blind spot in my knowledge – Alexander Graham Bell was against Deaf people? There’s a movement called oralism? While I have a grasp of current issues (access to interpreting and captions, the debate over cochlear implants) I had no idea of what Deaf people were facing even fifty years ago. That’s where In Our Own Hands comes in.

I do want to say straight up – this is an academic work. The chapters are written by different people and pull from research, doctoral papers, and lots of other things that add up to pages and pages of end notes. Some authors write engrossing narratives while others are more on the dry side. So this is a book to get your learning on.

And boy, did I learn. In the 1800s deaf people were referred to as “The Deaf and Dumb” which made no sense to me until I read this snippet from a 1845 article:

The truth is, monkies [sic], and the lower animals, do not talk, because they have nothing to say. The tongue is moved by the mind, but where there is no intellect, there is no thought; and where there is no thought, there is no need of any language…

So in their minds the deaf didn’t speak because they were too dumb to need language. Cue jaw drop.

And that’s just the beginning. There are essays about Deaf citizenship, Deaf education, how Deaf organizations formed and changed over time, and just how awful Bell was. Many come back to the ideas of agency, paternalism, and oralism (the belief that spoken language is inherently better than sign language).

I especially like the intersectionality many of the essays cover. One chapter is about Black ASL, another touches on Deaf religious history in the American South, yet another looks at Deaf societies and associations in Australia. The editors have made an effort to shed light on subjects that are less known and I appreciate it.

While In Our Own Hands is not for the casual reader it’s a valuable look at Deaf history and activism that helped me fill a gaping hole in my knowledge. Looking back I should have given myself permission to skim the chapters that were super dry or covered topics that interested me less, but all in all the read was worth it.

Thanks to Gallaudet University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Charleston Syllabus edited by Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

Synopsis:

27507970On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and sat with some of its parishioners during a Wednesday night Bible study session. An hour later, he began expressing his hatred for African Americans, and soon after, he shot nine church members dead, the church’s pastor and South Carolina state senator, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, among them. The ensuing manhunt for the shooter and investigation of his motives revealed his beliefs in white supremacy and reopened debates about racial conflict, southern identity,systemic racism, civil rights, and the African American church as an institution. In the aftermath of the massacre, Professors Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain sought a way to put the murder – and the subsequent debates about it in the media – in the context of America’s tumultuous history of race relations and racial violence on a global scale. They created the Charleston Syllabus on June 19, starting it as a hashtag on Twitter linking to scholarly works on the myriad of issues related to the murder. Charleston Syllabus is a reader – a collection of new essays and columns published in the wake of the massacre, along with selected excerpts from key existing scholarly books and general-interest articles. As timely as it is necessary, the book will be a valuable resource for understanding the roots of American systemic racism, white privilege, the uses and abuses of the Confederate flag and its ideals, the black church as a foundation for civil rights activity and state violence against such activity, and critical whiteness studies.

Review:

As an American in Japan there’s literally half a world between me and events in my home country.  Major news gets clipped down by the Japanese media – “Yet another shooting in America.  Somebody shot X people because of historical hatred/current events/being psychologically unstable.  Y people are protesting. Police are investigating.”

After the Charleston shooting, where a white male shot nine black people in a racially motivated crime, I knew I needed more information.  The Japanese news didn’t have it.  The American online media added some background, but not enough.  Luckily #CharlestonSyllabus, a hashtag on Twitter started by the editors of this book, collected all kinds of books, articles, primary source documents, and even songs that related to the shooting and the history that leads up to it.  The list is extensive and deep; you can find it here and at the back of the book.

Extensive and deep is good, but it also meant I had no idea where I should start.  I put a couple of titles on my library wish list, where they still linger.

That’s where this one volume Charleston Syllabus comes in.  It’s organized into six chapters covering everything from slavery and religion to Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter.  Each section starts off with a historical overview before turning over to historical documents, scholarly analysis, and articles from the days and weeks after the massacre.  I love how all the different kinds of writing nestle up against each other – a slave’s first person account next to a song they may have sung while working, next to a scholarly article on the events of the period.  The variety and breadth of the sources help you get a deep understanding of the historical context and how it relates to today’s news.

Throughout the book I found myself thinking, how could my education have failed me so badly?  Why haven’t I studied Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a kick butt investigative journalist?  Why wasn’t an annotated Constitution of the Confederate States put before me?  There is so much more history than the cotton gin and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Charleston Syllabus filled in many of those holes in my knowledge.  It opened my eyes to topics and controversies I only heard of in passing.  It gave me a lot to think about and pointed me towards time periods and people I’d like to study more deeply.

If you’re American this book will help you grapple with the complicated mess that is racial relations in our country.  If you’re not American it will show you how current events are related to a long and terrifying history of slavery and oppression.  Charleston Syllabus is a must read for anyone that wants to understand how things went wrong and think about where we can go from here.

Thanks to University of Georgia Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

24602886On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been thirty years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.

Lafayette’s arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.

Review:

I’m not a big audiobook person but the chances of my listening to one go up if it’s:

a – nonfiction
b – funny
c – read by the author
d – …who is a contributor to This American Life

It might be the narrowest of genres but it rarely fails. 😉  Continue reading “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell”

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David von Drehle

Synopsis:

108305Triangle is a poignantly detailed account of the 1911 disaster that horrified the country and changed the course of twentieth-century politics and labor relations. On March 25, 1911, as workers were getting ready to leave for the day, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The final toll was 146 people—123 of them women. It was the worst disaster in New York City history. Triangle is a vibrant and immensely moving account that Bob Woodward calls, “A riveting history written with flare and precision.”

Review:

I felt like I knew turn of the century New York going into this book – I’ve been studying it since I was a kid. In middle school we learned about the Tammany political machine and yellow journalism. In college I learned how the Triangle fire led to changes in the fire code, and that exit doors should always open out instead of in. A couple of years ago I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and gained a ground-level appreciation of the time.

It turns out that was only the barest of frameworks. Triangle shores up the weak bits, fills in the gaps, and extends the lessons of the fire into the New Deal and beyond. And it was a wonderful read to boot.

Big social and political movements such as garment worker strikes and pushes for political reform are masterfully illustrated using details from the lives of real people that were affected by them. The fire itself is a big part of the book, of course, and the harrowing minutes are covered in detail and from many different angles. I was scared the post-fire narrative would wane but the drama of the Triangle owners’ trial was the most riveting part of the entire story.

Von Drehle’s research is exhaustive and impressive, with notes and appendices taking up nearly a third of the pages. He also complied a complete list of victims, an impressive feat as no one had bothered to give it a try in the 90 years following the fire. (!) All in all it’s a wonderful piece of non-fiction that made me vow never to forget March 25, 1911.


I finished this book not long after reading The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy and they make an interesting compare and contrast study. They are both about historical fires that killed roughly 150 people but differ in every other respect.

Part of it has to do with the subject matter. The circus fire was due to a single company not following the law, forgoing fireproofing and dipping the big top in paraffin and white gasoline to waterproof it instead. (Smart.) The Triangle factory, on the other hand, passed inspection – the problem was with a lack of regulations in the first place. So while Triangle covers large-scale impact decades down the line Circus barely moves from the scene of the crime.

The authors themselves compound the differences. Triangle is a non-fiction book by a non-fiction writer, lovingly and painstakingly filled with end notes and references. Circus is a non-fiction book by a fiction writer, crafted for story while remaining true to known facts. There may be more creative non-fiction stuff going on but it produces chapters that I was unable to put down midway.

When I finished The Circus Fire I thought, that was awful. I’m glad I wasn’t there. When I finished Triangle I thought, that was awful… but a bunch of amazing people were able to parley it into a greater good.

Circus is about finding closure. Triangle is about making progress.

The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan

Synopsis:

351219Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus’s big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it was burning out of control, and more than 8,000 people were trapped inside. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, O’Nan skillfully re-creates the horrific events and illuminates the psychological oddities of human behavior under stress: the mad scramble for the exits; the hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death.

Brilliantly constructed and exceptionally moving, The Circus Fire is history at its most compelling.

Review:

I’ve heard about the circus fire before, but always in passing – somewhere in the Northeast a big top burned mumblemumble so sad mumblemumble. Thanks to O’Nan we have the full story.

The first two-thirds of the book is harrowing, gripping reading. The narrative is pieced together artfully and while a lot of names are thrown around I didn’t feel pressured to keep them perfectly straight. A fire is not a pretty way to die, and the effects of the heat and flames are not sugarcoated. As someone medically-adjacent I found the way they treated burns in the 1940s interesting while being thankful we know not to do a lot of that stuff today.

The last third drags a bit, detailing money problems at the circus, prolonged recoveries, and the wild goose chase of a possible culprit. Things pull together by the last chapter though, with the case of Little Miss 1565 just as powerful today as it was seventy years ago.

O’Nan uses vocabulary of the time and it adds wonderful flavor, bring the American homefront alive. For example, in passing he mentions Eastern War Time, something I didn’t even know existed. I appreciate this attention to detail and the rumors he squelches; one such debunking provides the most powerful line in the whole book:

Several survivors said the one thing they will never forget about the circus fire as long as they live is the sound of the animals as they burned alive. But there were no animals.

A great read for anyone interested in disasters and what can be learned from them.