When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich

9780062656209_56b54At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. He examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.

When Death Becomes Life also engages in fascinating ethical and philosophical debates: How much risk should a healthy person be allowed to take to save someone she loves? Should a patient suffering from alcoholism receive a healthy liver? What defines death, and what role did organ transplantation play in that definition? Mezrich’s riveting book is a beautiful, poignant reminder that a life lost can also offer the hope of a new beginning.

Review:

Books by doctors who wield scalpels are some of my favorites, and Mezrich does a great job introducing the reader to the history and current practice of transplant surgery.

The good:

  • This is not a comprehensive history of transplantation, nor a memoir, nor a collection of patient stories.  It’s equal parts of each, allowing us to get an overview of the field in a personal, relatable way.
  • Transplant surgery is amazing, and Mezrich obviously loves his job and sharing that wonder and excitement with us.  It’s almost like he’s going, ‘Look!  Isn’t this cool?’ And it is.
  • The pioneers of the field, like most doctors in the 1960s and 70s, were men, so I appreciate that he takes the time to acknowledge a woman who is leading the field today and has some bad ass stories of her own.
  • The pacing is good and the switches between history, patient stories, and his training are well done.  I never thought, ‘go back!’ or, ‘ugh, history again’.  It all fits together.
  • Mezrich doesn’t shy away from ethical issues. Some of the first donors didn’t give consent, exactly, and organs were taken from people who died in prison as a matter of course.  When the field was first getting established there wasn’t even an accepted definition of brain death.  Not all the controversy is in the past – do you give a new liver to an alcoholic?  How much risk do you let a living donor take on in order to save their spouse?
  • Overall the tone is upbeat.  He doesn’t tear our hearts out or leave us in suspense about the outcome of a case, which I appreciate.  My eyes did leak a bit while reading the chapter about donors because the details are beautiful and touching. For example, before starting the operation to procure organs the doctors, nurses, ICU team, and other staff that took care of the patient will pause and say something about the donor.  Often they’ll read a poem or express thoughts from the family, and many will have tears in their eyes as they start.
  • There are no spiels about how everyone should donate their kidneys or anything like that.  He accepts organs as they come, and always with a sense of gratitude and respect for the donors.
  • The author seems like a nice guy which is saying a lot, because there are bunches of surgeons who write books that don’t seem like nice guys.  He acknowledges the rest of his team and thanks them often, as well as share funny, self-deprecating stories.

The not-so-good:

  • As much as I enjoyed this book (a lot!) I’m not sure it will stick with me.  It’s missing that ineffable something that screams four star read.  3.5 stars, though I may bump it up later.

If you like books about medicine, look forward to the Wellcome Prize longlist, or are just curious about transplantation, you’ll want to pick up When Death Becomes Life.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo

36904320In 2012, Sarah Ruhl was a distinguished author and playwright, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Max Ritvo, a student in her playwriting class at Yale University, was an exuberant, opinionated, and highly gifted poet. He was also in remission from pediatric cancer.

Over the next four years–in which Ritvo’s illness returned and his health declined, even as his productivity bloomed–the two exchanged letters that spark with urgency, humor, and the desire for connection. Reincarnation, books, the afterlife as an Amtrak quiet car, good soup: in Ruhl and Ritvo’s exchanges, all ideas are fair, nourishing game, shared and debated in a spirit of generosity and love. “We’ll always know one another forever, however long ever is,” Ritvo writes. “And that’s all I want–is to know you forever.”

Review:

Ruhl is a playwright, but she originally wanted to be a poet. (“I began to think there was a kind of equation for playwrights—indifferent-to-bad poets made good playwrights,” she writes.) Ritvo tried his hand at writing plays in Ruhl’s class but quickly returned to poetry. They kept in touch, writing emails between visits and poetry readings.  Ruhl adds context when letters miss some of the story – when Ritvo’s cancer returns, the treatments he goes through, and the joys they share when they are able to meet in person.

Going into this book I was expecting the letters, expecting the cancer, expecting the thoughts about life and finding meaning.

I was not expecting the poetry.

Some loop closed by old age,
the droop of an old man’s head
conferring a measure of acceptance,
head already looking at the ground, thinking:
when will a hole open up
and I’ll fall into it?

(Ruhl)

They send poems back and forth, first ditties written long ago or in stolen moments, but they evolve and add another layer to the correspondence.  Images posited in letters, something as simple as the comfort of soup, are transformed when put into verse. It’s like I’ve been given the key to their shorthand, and a key to their linguistic hearts.

I connected with some of the poems more than others. I especially liked Ruhl’s – the images, the language, and the friendship-ly love hit me in the gut. Ritvo’s poetry doesn’t have the same punch but his letters make me think all the same.

When I see you I am happy
even when you’re sad.
Meet me at the carousel
in this life or the next.
Meet me at the carousel
I’ll be wearing red.

(Ruhl)

My eyes sometimes glossed over with the religious talk, but it’s neat seeing things from the perspective of a Catholic turned Buddhist and a Jewish boy turned atheist. Your mileage will likely vary.

A touching, beautiful look at the end of a life through the eyes of two poets.  Bring some tissues.

Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club by Anne Allison

 

22878618Anne Allison performed the ritualized tasks of a hostess in one of Tokyo’s many “hostess clubs”: pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes, and making flattering or titillating conversation with the businessmen who came there on company expense accounts. She describes in detail a typical company outing to such a club—what the men do, how they interact with the hostesses, the role the hostess is expected to play, and the extent to which all of this involves “play” rather than “work.”

Allison seeks to uncover connections between such behavior and other social, economic, sexual, and gendered relations. She argues that Japanese corporate nightlife enables and institutionalizes a particular form of ritualized male dominance: in paying for this entertainment, Japanese corporations not only give their male workers a self-image as phallic man, but also develop relationships to work that are unconditional and unbreakable.

Review:

Nightwork is a good book in that it does exactly what it says on the tin – discuss hostess clubs in Japan from a sociological and anthropological standpoint. The problem is that it’s hard to recommend to almost anyone.

First, the subject matter.  Hostess clubs are establishments where groups of men, usually on company expense accounts, go to socialize with colleagues and potential business partners.  Hostesses are assigned to each table to light cigarettes, pour drinks, and keep the conversation going.  It is not a place of prostitution or a sex club, and the better the establishment the less the chance of anything outside a casual touch.  They don’t sell sex, they sell the idea of sex.  The hostesses and “mama” ( club owner) make men feel smart and sexy and desirable for a hefty hourly rate.

I picked up this book because I’ve heard about hostess clubs the entire time I’ve been in Japan, but I’ve never known anyone who has been to one.  They’re not as common as they used to be, I gather, and I’m not friends with any management types who have an excuse to visit on their company’s dime.  A few early chapters outline what a usual visit is like, how the clubs are arranged, and why companies see visits as an investment in their employees.

The book carries a huge caveat with it, though – it has become extremely out of date.  The author spent a few months as a hostess in 1981, and the book itself was published in 1994.  Many of the cited works are from the 70s and 80s, and I’m sure research has advanced in the intervening 30 years.

Textbook-y and sometimes dry writing aside, that time disconnect makes this book hard to recommend.  If you don’t know what Japan looks like now you may be tempted to apply everything to the current day, but you can’t.  Some insights carry over, but not all of them.  There’s no way to suss out which is which unless you’re already at least knee deep in the culture.

If you study Japan and/or speak Japanese and know the culture you’ll get some value out of Nightwork. However those with a more casual interest would do better looking elsewhere.

Oranges by John McPhee

2799450I learned of this book via 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich, and it’s a neat little find.

John McPhee was tasked with writing a magazine article about oranges.  He went down to Florida, did some research, and came back with a 160 page book instead.

In large part this is because oranges, from their history to their cultivation and processing, is so gosh darn interesting.  The book fills your brain with trivia and “did you know”s.

The taste and aroma of oranges differ by type, season, county, state, and country, and even as a result of the position of the individual orange in the framework of the tree on which it grew.

Carvone, a synthetic spearmint oil which is used to flavor spearmint gum, is made from citrus peel oil.

Originally published in 1967, McPhee caught the industry at a turning point where American consumers started to prefer orange juice concentrate over the fresh stuff.  Concentrate is consistent in taste and texture and doesn’t go bad, making it a hit in mid-century homes.  He talks about the manufacturing process, the technical discoveries that allow concentrate to actually taste good, and how it was starting to change the industry.  I think it’s especially interesting because we have since turned back to fresh orange juice, and out of all the “how it’s made” videos on Youtube I can’t find one that shows concentrate being made.

The writing is light and easy and often Bill Bryson-esque, though without his self-deprecating humor. There are still funny bits, though. When a farmer picks McPhee up by helicopter to show him the groves:

The helicopter was yawing and swaying in a gusty head wind, and Adams – a youthful man wearing an open-necked shirt and a fiber hat with madras band – was having trouble keeping it on a true course.  The problem didn’t seem to bother him. “Isn’t this thing great?” he shouted.

“It sure is,” I said. “How long have you had it?”

“Almost three months.”

“What did you fly before that?”

“Never flown before. There’s nothing like it!”

I liked these adventures and profiles best – talking with scientists at the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, walking the groves with growers, and visiting an orange baron who was born in a town that wasn’t affected by cold snaps, so much so that it was named Frostproof, Florida.

That being said the middle part of the book, covering orange history, dragged me down. He gives example after example of anachronistic oranges in Renaissance paintings, details the introduction of oranges into different regions over time, and lists their myriad uses over the centuries. There were interesting facts in there but the list-y nature bored me. And do know that this book is a product of its times, so expect some casual and fleeting racism towards native peoples and African-Americans.

Oranges is good for the next time you want a light, interesting, fact-filled read, especially if you need a break from heavier stuff.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

26073085Since 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction was greeted with the Black Codes and Jim Crow; the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was met with the shutting down of public schools while taxpayer dollars financed segregated white private schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 triggered the so-called Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs that disenfranchised millions of African Americans while propelling presidents Nixon and Reagan into the White House.

Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage.

Review:

When I was taught African-American history in school the overall impression was that things were bad, but courts or Congress would swoop in and save the day.  There was segregation… but the Supreme Court fixed it!  There were racist policies like poll taxes and literacy tests… but they were made illegal!

White Rage makes it painfully, powerfully clear that wasn’t the case.

For example, I knew about redlining, where non-whites would be directed to housing in certain (poor) districts, creating de facto segregation at the neighborhood level. It was taught in an economic, almost geometric sense in the classroom, but Anderson shows us how slow things were to change for the better via the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet.

A successful Howard-trained doctor, he and his family moved into a bungalow in a white, working class neighborhood in 1925.  The next day hundreds of people formed a mob around his house while the police watched from a distance, even when rocks were thrown.  When the mob rushed the house some men inside, including Sweet’s brothers, grabbed guns and fired into the crowd. At this point the police arrested the entire Sweet family and the friends that had come to support them… not the mob. Natch.

Two white men were dead, the police downplayed the mob, and witnesses perjured themselves to high heaven.  It took two trials to settle the matter, and while the Sweets were eventually acquitted the doctor’s brother, wife, and baby daughter all contracted tuberculosis while in jail and died. Dr. Sweet did his best to carry on but he lost his house, was forced to move back into a redlined district, and completed suicide.  It’s the first time I’ve read about the human dimension that goes along with the awful policy.

Winning a court battle, even at the Supreme Court level, did not bring the instant, inevitable change I was lead to believe.  Every right won had to be fought for again, and the lives ruined and potential lost in that time is immeasurable.  A quick look at the most recent US election shows that the cycle is still going strong – a white candidate for Georgia governor used his position as Secretary of State to disenfranchise African Americans at every turn.  The gutting of the Voting Rights Act several years ago meant that polling stations in African American neighborhoods could be closed with short notice and photo IDs could be made mandatory to vote. And until a few days ago former felons in the Sunshine State lost the right to vote for life.

In Florida, stunningly, felonies are not confined to burglaries and robberies but include offenses such as letting a helium balloon float up in the air, walking through a construction zone, or “catching lobsters with tails too short.”

My reading experience was good, if you can call being infuriated, shocked, and heart-broken in turns counts as good.  Everything is meticulously researched with end notes to match, and while I had trouble getting into the first chapter or two the rest flew by.

I’m grateful for a look at African American history through this specific lens, and I look forward to Anderson’s next book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.


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

Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard

34684624Former White House social secretaries Lea Berman, who worked for George and Laura Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for Michelle and Barack Obama, have written an entertaining and uniquely practical guide to personal and professional success in modern life. These Washington insiders share what they’ve learned through first person examples of their own glamorous (and sometimes harrowing) moments with celebrities, foreign leaders and that most unpredictable of animals—the American politician.

This book is for you if you feel unsure of yourself in social settings, if you’d like to get along more easily with others, or if you want to break through to a new level of cooperation with your boss and coworkers. They give specific advice for how to exude confidence even when you don’t feel it, ways to establish your reputation as an individual whom people like, trust, and want to help, and lay out the specific social skills still essential to success – despite our increasingly digitized world. Jeremy and Lea prove that social skills are learned behavior that anyone can acquire, and tell the stories of their own unlikely paths to becoming the social arbiters of the White House, while providing tantalizing insights into the character of the first ladies and presidents they served.

 

Review:

Social secretaries plan all kinds of events, from state dinners and the Easter egg roll to Congressional picnics and private lunches.  The authors speak from their own experience about how it’s done while dispensing advice on, as the title suggests, treating people well.

Berman and Bernard talk about their time at the White House under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.  The tips they give aren’t groundbreaking (begin with confidence, be consistent, listen first and talk later) but they’re things we should all be reminded of.  I learned some new things, too, like good ways to start a thank you note. (Hint: it’s not “Thank you for…”)

What I enjoyed most were the anecdotes about working in the White House.  Both authors have a glowing admiration for the presidents and first ladies they served and it shows.There are tales of near disaster, like when Berman who, when an interpreter refused to move to their proper seat, tipped them out of their chair (!).  They also talk about how they came into the position, especially interesting for Bernard as he was both the first man and the first openly gay person to be social secretary.

Fitting presidential quotes round things out.  I listened to Treating People Well on audio and like that the authors narrate their own stories and experiences.  A third narrator covers the introduction and interstitial text.

While I wouldn’t say it’s an authoritative volume about being your best at work nor the best White House memoir, it is an enjoyable combination of the two.

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

37588678If there is anything better than a book, it’s a book about books.  The joy of reading is suffused with the anticipation of reading the amazing titles put before you.  Wishlists and bookshelves fill along with our literary hearts.

There are similarly titled books-on-books out there, sure, but I’m really liking this one. Let me list the reasons why:

  • Other tomes list what you should read, like literary brain veggies.  Mustich takes a different tack: if he had a bookstore that held exactly 1,000 books these would be the ones he includes.  There’s something for every reading mood – books to ponder over, books to gulp down whole, books for children, books for when you need an escape, and more.
  • Most people will likely dip in and out as the mood strikes but, me being me, I blew through the entire thing front to back.  It holds up!  The books are in alpha order by author, perfect for brushing up against a writer you’ve never heard of.
  • Unlike many of these lists about half of the selections are non-fiction of the well-wearing sort – memoirs, travelogues, nature writing, history, food writing, etc.  A large part of the TBR I assembled is nonfiction, to my pleasant surprise.
  • Each entry has a bevy of info attached – bibliographic details, related works, recommended editions and translations, adaptations, and more.  And if you’ve already read a book there’s several more by different authors to try.
  • As a result the one thousand main entries are the tip of the iceberg – six thousand more books are referenced throughout.  The index, it is epic.
  • While some picks are obvious, some are not.  Mustich will name check an author’s most famous work while highlighting another that he feels is underappreciated or a better entry point into their oeuvre.
  • Instead of espousing why the content of a book is important, we’re told why it’s a good read.  A touching memoir, thrilling mystery, a book that will stay with you for the rest of your life – hearing the why makes the selections even more alluring for me.

All of that being said, as you’d expect with any arbitrary selection of books, I have some quibbles.

  • The author is a well-meaning white guy and the list reflects that in many ways.  First, he obviously made an effort to include women and people of color, as well as dip into world literature, which is much appreciated. And I want to say up front – it’s hard to hold one thousand books in your head and I may be missing a few.  However.
    • By my estimate women only make up 20-25% of the authors listed in the thousand.  Out of the 45 authors with more than one book I only see six women, or 13%.  Better than the “expected” 8% mentioned in How to Suppress Women’s Writing but still well short of half.  Boo.
    • Looking at the books written by people of color, most by Western authors are squarely centered on the POC experience (James Baldwin’s Collected Essays, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, etc.).  These are all great and worthy books, but it perpetuates the myth that non-white people are only qualified to write about themselves.  I would have liked to see a larger range, maybe by throwing in fantasy like The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin or a book by Octavia Butler.  (No, Butler is not on this list.  There are two Butlers but not her.  I know.)
    • In the same vein, LGBTQIA+ folks don’t get their full due.  Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is here, huzzah, but that’s about it.  Other than classic authors whose Queerness gets a passing mention (Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, etc.) I have a hard time remembering another book related to the gay experience.  With all the nonfiction how about And the Band Played On, about the AIDS epidemic, or Columbine, by a gay author?  Again, I may be missing a couple, but even then it’s slim pickings.
    • There are so. many. books. about. war.  The history of war, soldier memoirs, the politics and tactics of war… ugh.
    • Many of the travel books are about a white dude traveling to a place populated by black or brown people.  I just… no thank you.
  • While some genres are lovingly included (sci-fi, mysteries, thrillers), others are largely ignored.  There is precious little fantasy (and most is sword and sorcery at that), and there’s only one romance.  Huzzah for Georgette Heyer but considering the attempt at inclusiveness it made me sad.

Laid out like that my criticisms may look harsh but overall I really liked 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.  I’m planning on getting a hard copy and marking it up (in pencil!) with notes about the books I’ve read. There are also illustrations and pictures on almost every page, making the already impressive volume an attractive gift.

Curating a selection like this is an incredibly hard task and Mustich does better than many.  Perfect for readers who love books about books.

Thanks to Workman Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

26162300Mollie Panter-Downes not only wrote short stories but also non-fiction “Letters from London” for The New Yorker. Her New Yorker obituary observed: “Other correspondents were writing about the war, of course, often with great power and conviction, but they dealt with large incidents and events, while Mollie wrote of the quotidian stream of English life, of what it was like to actually live in a war, of what the government was doing, of the nervous sound of the air-raid sirens, of the disappearance of the egg, of children being evacuated – of all the things that made life in England bearable and unbearable.” In a steady flow of copy, directed to editors she had never met at a magazine she had never visited, she undoubtedly did more to explain wartime England to American readers than anyone else in the field.

Review:

I love primary sources and I’ve been wanting to try a book from Persephone, so London War Notes was just the thing.  Panter-Downes lived in and around London during World War II and wrote weekly articles for The New Yorker, describing the state and mood of the city.  This 459 page book is an edited collection of those pieces.  I’m not big on military tactics or strategy but real, lived experiences on the home front are exactly my thing.

Panter-Downes paints a vivid picture of what London was like from the first rumbles of war, through the Blitz, up to VE Day.   Her attention to detail serves well, and single sentence scenes bring the war to life.

It has always been a strange and startling sight to see middle-aged Kensington matrons in fur coats standing grimly in line waiting for six pennyworth of gumdrops, as though it were Biblical manna.

There were so many things I hadn’t even heard about.  Blackout deaths, where vehicles would strike and kill pedestrians on the dark streets.  Double summer time, a two hour version of daylight savings, was put into effect to try and conserve energy.  And at one point newspapers were forbidden from printing weather reports, as it was feared it’d give the enemy an advantage.

The detail is paired with humor to make each entry pleasantly readable, despite the circumstances.

The Christmas dinner isn’t going to be so particularly festive, either, from all accounts.  Turkeys are difficult to find, though it’s rumored that tinned ones will be available – a bleak prospect for those who can’t work up any suitably seasonable emotions at the thought of getting out the yuletide can-opener.

And when she aims your heartstrings, she hits.

Old men and women call to find out if that can be evacuated to safe areas and the bureaus try to find billets for them, but it isn’t easy. “Old and infirm people take a good deal of looking after and people grow tired of them” is the official explanation – a full-length tragedy in seventeen words.

Once more London finds itself a blitz city.  A city officially enters that class when people ring up their friends the day after a noisy night to find out if they’re still there.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend London War Notes to someone with little interest, but if you’re curious about the lived home front experience it’s a great place to start.

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

18527222Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail.

Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person—man or woman—to walk it twice and three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity and appeared on TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. The story of Grandma Gatewood will inspire readers of all ages by illustrating the full power of human spirit and determination. Even those who know of Gatewood don’t know the full story—a story of triumph from pain, rebellion from brutality, hope from suffering.

Review:

Trigger warning for domestic violence. (I wasn’t expecting it, either.)

Complicated thoughts about this one.  I’ve had to sit with it rolling around my head for several days before I was ready to write a review.

I have to start by saying that Emma Gatewood was an amazing woman.  When people hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) nowadays they are kit out to the nines – high-tech lightweight camping gear and freeze dried provisions, smart phones and head lamps.  Gatewood didn’t even have a backpack, just a sack she sewed herself slung over her shoulder.  She slept on the side of the trail in piles of leaves or on rocks she warmed by the fire, or didn’t sleep at all if the howling of the wild dogs was a bit too close.  In this manner, at the age of 67, she walked over 2,000 miles up and down mountains.  And after being the first woman to do it once, she became the first person to do it twice.  Then three times.

So in my book Gatewood gets all the stars.  I don’t think Montgomery did the best job telling her story, though.

Part of it, I’m guessing, has to do with the problem of time.  Gatewood first completed the trail in 1955 and I’m sure that many of the people that met her along the way, along with some of her children, weren’t around to tell their stories. (Gatewood herself died in 1973.)  Montgomery relied on her notebooks, news articles, conversations with family members, and those who remember meeting her on the trail.

Grandma GatewoodMontgomery takes these sources and puts them together into a plodding, paint-by-numbers account of her first AT thru-hike.  On this day she hiked from here to here, and slept beneath a picnic bench.  On the next day she got as far as there, ate some berries along the trail, and stayed the night with Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so.  No emotions, no themes, no heart.

Every now and then there’s asides that are meant to connect us to the time.  A couple make sense – the rise of the automobile leads to a decline in people walking after all – but some are out of left field.  He goes on and on about a hurricane that passes well south and doesn’t affect her progress much.  And notes about McCarthyism in the middle of a book about a hiker? Really?

We flash back and forth between Gatewood’s hiking and her early life in Ohio around the turn of the century, which was jarring at first but didn’t bother me too much.  What did bother me, and what I’m having the hardest time articulating, is the way the domestic violence in her marriage is handled.  It’s back to the rote statements of fact – he hit her at this time, these were her injuries, etc.  Near the end Montgomery writes,

To suggest she was trying to be the first woman means believing that she was walking toward something. I’m not sure that’s wholly true. I’m not sure she was walking toward something so much as walking away.

This sits wrong with me.  Like, if her husband didn’t beat her badly enough to crack her ribs she never would have attempted the AT?  Women, especially in that era, are defined by their roles as mothers and caretakers. Heck, she was quickly dubbed Grandma Gatewood by the newspapers.  When she was finally old enough – no children at home to take care of, no husband to hold her back – she set out on her walk.  Why don’t you discuss that societal obligation as an insight to the times instead of another aside about the H-bomb?

On Goodreads Kay points out that Montgomery unnecessarily inserted himself into the story, recreating Gatewood’s climb of Katahdin at the end of the AT and giving that more space than her own summit.  Men usurping women’s experiences by inserting themselves into the story is a new thought for me, and I’m going to keep an eye out for it in the future.  I have a feeling it’s one of those things that’s always been there but I haven’t thought to notice it.

In sum: yea Emma Gatewood, meh this book.

Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham

38820052I’m not a fashionista by any stretch but I like me a good fashion documentary.  The September Issue gave me a grounding in this topsy turvy world, after which I gravitated to Bill Cunningham New York.  Cunningham was a private person, almost to the point of being a loner, so when I saw his posthumous memoir would be published the first week of September (natch) I snapped it up.

I knew Cunningham as a fashion photographer for the New York Times who did lovely On the Street videos. Treat yourself to a few here, here, and here – I dare you to watch without smiling.  But before he picked up a camera he was a Boston boy who loved clothes, was drafted into the Army, and became a milliner upon his return.  This memoir covers this early period of his life, so if you’re looking for info on his photography or modern day notables like Anna Wintour you will be disappointed.

Cunningham starts with his childhood, growing up as part of an Irish Catholic family that did not approve of his playing dress up in his sister’s clothes.  In fact, his family approved of little that he did, from dropping out of Harvard and moving to New York to becoming a hat designer.  Reading between the lines you can infer the pain that must have caused but Cunningham rarely discusses his inner life.  We get all the action instead – working as a stock boy in Boston department stores, getting a lucky posting in France during the Korean War, and moving to New York and feasting his eyes on fashion.

The account appears to be written around 1970 and I had to keep reminding myself that.  Modern me bristled at women designers being called “girls”.  He crashed party after party to look at the clothes the women were wearing, and I had to tell myself that 60 years ago that was more of a social faux pas than a criminal one.

Cunningham’s writing is down to earth, and in the book he says kitchen-table style is preferable to sending the reader to the dictionary.  As a result the tone is almost conversational and kept drawing me back to the page.

You will find many insights into his thinking here, such as why he never accepted anything while working, not even a glass of water.  As the narrative catches up to the time of writing the telling slows down, going over each collection of hats, each year in the fashion world.  While I would have liked more info about his early life I get the feeling that he only shared what he wanted to, and I respect that.

I enjoyed the read but if you’ve never heard of Cunningham this is probably not the place to start. First watch Bill Cunningham New York, become smitten, then read this memoir to fill in the gaps.

Thanks to Penguin Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.