Book Review: Fear

fearFear: Trump in the White House
by Bob Woodward
Current Events/Nonfiction/Investigative Reporting
357 pages
Published September 2018

First we need to address this cover. It’s a great cover, but I hate it. I hate having it in my house, on my coffee table, glaring up at people in the room. It’s creepy. It’s perfect for this book, but I will be very glad to give the book back to the library and have that cover out of my house!

That said. It was interesting comparing this book to Fire and Fury, which I read at the beginning of the year. Woodward is a very respected journalist, and you can tell how much he tries to remain objective and simply report the things that happened. Fire and Fury definitely had a slant to it. Fear doesn’t have a slant, but it still comes off as negative. Which says something about the entire administration when trying to be objective still results in the president shown as a “f*cking moron,” (Tillerson’s words) or a “f*cking liar.” (John Dowd’s words.)

The thing that really struck me about this book was learning how much Trump wanted to pull completely out of South Korea. Even when he was told we could detect a North Korean missile launch in 7 seconds from South Korea, as opposed to 15 MINUTES from Alaska, (out of a 45-minute missile flight!) he still didn’t see that as a good enough reason to stay in South Korea. (You know, treaties and allies aside.) His ignorance and stubbornness is mind-boggling.

It took me three or four days to get through this book, which is much slower than my normal single-day read time. The subject matter is just that weighty, though Woodward’s writing style is fantastic. This is the first Woodward book I’ve actually read, but I want to look up his backlist now, because he’s really good at not putting me to sleep!

One other difference from Fire and Fury – there were things in the book I didn’t know. (And I pay attention to the news.) There wasn’t really anything in Fire and Fury that was surprising to me. Fear did have new information.

It’s a frightening, weighty book, so don’t read it if you’re not prepared for that. But it’s good.

From the cover of Fear:

THE INSIDE STORY ON PRESIDENT TRUMP, AS ONLY BOB WOODWARD CAN TELL IT

With authoritative reporting honed through eight presidencies from Nixon to Obama, author Bob Woodward reveals in unprecedented detail the harrowing life inside President Donald Trump’s White House and precisely how he makes decisions on major foreign and domestic policies.

Fear is the most intimate portrait of a sitting president ever published during the president’s first years in office. The focus is on the explosive debates and the decision-making in the Oval Office, the Situation Room, Air Force One and the White House residence.

Woodward draws from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources, meeting notes, personal diaries, files and documents. Often with day-by-day details, dialogue and documentation, Fear tracks key foreign issues from North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, NATO, China and Russia. It reports in depth on Trump’s key domestic issues, particularly trade and tariff disputes, immigration, tax legislation, the Paris Climate Accord and the racial violence in Charlottesville in 2017.

Fear presents vivid details of the negotiations between Trump’s attorneys and Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, laying out for the first time the meeting-by-meeting discussions and strategies. It discloses how senior Trump White House officials joined together to steal draft orders from the president’s Oval Office desk so he would not issue directives that would jeopardize critical intelligence operations.

“It was no less than an administrative coup d’etat,” Woodward writes, “a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”

Book Review: Headscarves and Hymens

headscarves and hymensHeadscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution
by Mona Eltahawy
Nonfiction – Women’s Rights/Feminism
240 pages
Published 2015

Headscarves and Hymens was the third book in Book Riot’s Persist: Feminist Book Club, which is what brought it to my attention. We’ve been reading roughly two chapters a week and talking about it via Instagram Live. It’s certainly not my favorite venue to use – for one, I can’t seem to find a setting to let me know when someone goes live on Instagram, so I have to set myself an alarm. (I missed one book club session because I just forgot.) I also can’t seem to watch the videos after they’re over, so I can’t catch up on what I missed. I much prefer the Twitter chat that YA_Pride does. I can go back through those, and still have conversations with other people that read the book (and follow them!) where I can’t do that easily with Persist.

But you’re here to hear about the book, not the club! HH is short, under 250 pages, with seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is basically an essay on a topic, from driving (“Roads Through the Desert”) to veiling (“Black Veil, White Flag”) to purity and Female Genital Mutilation (“The God of Virginity”). Eltahawy is well-researched, mixing anecdotes and statistics to show us both the big picture of what is going on, as well as making it personal and hard-hitting.

I’m glad we read it in small chunks – some of the chapters are harder than others (the chapter on FGM and sexual “purity” was particularly rough). Spacing it out let the information really sink in before moving on to another topic. Additionally, we were reading it at the same time as the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was also….unsettling.

This is a really eye-opening book, but be sure you’re emotionally prepared to read it. It’s probably healthier to set it down and walk away for breaks, rather than to read it straight through.

From the cover of Headscarves and Hymens:

The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces – political, cultural, and religious – that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.

Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s issues in the Middle East, she explains that since the Arab Spring began in 2010, women in the Arab world have had two revolutions to undertake: one fought alongside men, against oppressive regimes, and another fought against an entire political and economic system that represses women in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other nations.

Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action on their behalf, confronting a “toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.” A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.

Book Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451

dear fahrenheit 451Dear Fahrenheit 451 – Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life
by Annie Spence
Book about Books
244 pages
Published 2017

Dear Fahrenheit 451 was recommended to me by Doing Dewey in the comments to my last book about books, My Life With Bob. I’m very glad they recommended it, because I enjoyed this book immensely!

In Dear Fahrenheit 451, each chapter is a letter to a different book. (Except the last few chapters, those are letters to the reader.) The letters range from disappointment (Wicked) to adoration (The Fledgling) to creeped out (Principles of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis) – but they’re all entertaining, and usually pretty funny. Some letters are explaining why she’s culling them from the library’s collection (too many copies, or bad condition, or haven’t been checked out in years.)

The author has a wonderful writing style that makes me want to grab coffees and gab about books with her. It’s also a great book to read when you don’t have long periods of time to read – the chapters are short and self-contained, so there’s no rush to find out what happens next. It will most likely add things to your TBR, though, as most books about books tend to do!

I really enjoyed this one – it’s way better than My Life With Bob. Probably because it’s actually about the books, where My Life With Bob was more of a memoir.

From the cover of Dear Fahrenheit 451:

If you love to read, and presumably you do since you’ve picked up this book (!), you know that some books affect you so profoundly, they forever change the way you think about the world. Some books, on the other hand, disappoint you so much you want to throw them against the wall. Either way, it’s clear that a book can be your new soul mate or the bad relationship you need to end.

In Dear Fahrenheit 451, librarian Annie Spence has crafted love letters and breakup notes to both the iconic and the eclectic books she has encountered over the years. From her breakup letter to The Giving Tree (a dysfunctional relationship book if ever there was one) to her love letter to The Time Traveler’s Wife (a novel less about time travel and more about the life of a marriage, with all of its ups and downs), Spence will make you think of old favorites in a new way. Filled with suggested reading lists, Spence’s take on classic and contemporary books is very much like the best of literature – sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes surprisingly poignant, and filled with universal truths.

A celebration of reading, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is for anyone who loves nothing more than curling up with a good book . . . and another, and another, and another!

Book Review: Look Me In The Eye

look me in the eye aspergersLook Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
by John Elder Robison
Memoir
288 pages
Published 2007

I try to make a habit of picking up books written by people on the autism spectrum – it’s part of my effort to read inclusively, but it also has a personal component, since my husband is on the spectrum. (You can see my list of books on this subject here.) Look Me In The Eye is a book about growing up in the 70s, when an autism diagnosis usually meant a kid entirely incapable of most communication – they didn’t really understand the spectrum yet. John Elder Robison was not that child, so he didn’t discover his diagnosis until his 40s. Autistic adults discovering the reason for their quirks is a very common story, though these days it’s more often women who fall through the cracks than men.

It’s always amusing to me spotting the similarities between autistic memoirs and my husband – one of them came very early in the book, when Robison is talking about a book shown to him by his father.

We looked at books together, especially the Boy Scout Woodsman manual. I can still remember the pictures that showed how to make a trap, and the correct way to step over a fallen log.
I dreamed about trapping wolves and bears, but garter snakes and frogs were as close as I got. And I’ve never forgotten the woodsman’s log-crossing techniques that I learned at five.

My husband, similarly, has mentioned a book of survival skills he read as a child, and was particularly fascinated by the traps. (He also still remembers those pages clearly.)

The blurb on the cover says Robison is a natural-born storyteller, which his brother also mentions in the Foreword to the book – and they’re right. This book just flows. Robison has a wonderful writing style. He’s funny but still shows the hardship of growing up with an alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother. (He called them “Slave” and “Stupid” until he moved out at sixteen.) He maybe be critical of other peoples’ actions in his past, but he also admits to leaving his brother head-down in five-foot deep holes and pulling other “pranks” that probably weren’t as funny to the people around him. (The mannequin he wrapped up and hung from a powerline above a burning pentagram deep in the woods before calling the local police to report it was rather amazing, though. Teenagers, man.)

This was a great look at growing up before a diagnosis existed; struggling to make up for the ways an autistic mind works differently when the world won’t meet you halfway. My favorite kind of books about autism so far have been the memoirs. This is, I think, my fourth. The Journal of Best Practices was written by another man, and Pretending to be Normal and Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate by women.

Excellent book.

From the cover of Look Me In The Eye:

Ever since he was small, John Robison had longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits – an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother in them) – had earned him the label “social deviant.” No guidance came from his mother, who conversed with light fixtures, or his father, who spent evenings pickling himself in sherry. It was no wonder he gravitated to machines, which could, at least, be counted on.

After fleeing his parents and dropping out of high school, his savant-like ability to visualize electronic circuits landed him a gig with KISS, for whom he created their legendary fire-breathing guitars. Later, he drifted into a “real” job, as an engineer for a major toy company. But the higher Robison rose in the company, the more he had to pretend to be “normal” and do what he simply couldn’t: communicate. It wasn’t worth the paycheck.

It was not until he was forty that an insightful therapist told him he had the form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way Robison saw himself – and the world.

Look Me In The Eye is the moving, darkly funny story of growing up with Asperger’s at a time when the diagnosis simply didn’t exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as “defective,” who could not avail himself of KISS’s endless supply of groupies, and who still has a peculiar aversion to using people’s given names (he calls his wife “Unit Two”). He also provides a fascinating reverse angle on the younger brother he left at the mercy of their nutty parents – the boy who would later change his name to Augusten Burroughs and write the bestselling memoir Running With Scissors.

Ultimately, this is the story of Robison’s journey from his world into ours, and his new life as a husband, father, and successful small business owner – repairing his beloved high-end automobiles. It’s a strange, sly, indelible account – sometimes alien, yet always deeply human.

Book Review: Bonk

bonkBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
by Mary Roach
Microhistory
319 pages
Published 2008

It’s not often a nonfiction book has me laughing out loud, but this one did it. This is the first of Roach’s books I’ve read, but her voice makes me want to read everything she’s ever written! Bonk is the story of sexual research – how scientists have made discoveries about a topic that is awkward at best, and taboo or even criminal at worst. Roach takes research seriously, volunteering as a research subject more than once (and convincing her husband to help, in at least one case!) Her wordplay is clever and her footnotes are HILARIOUS – this was a nonfiction book I kept having to pause and read to my husband between snickers.

Even her chapter titles are giggle-inducing – with titles like “The Princess and Her Pea – The Woman Who Moved Her Clitoris, and Other Ruminations on Intercourse Orgasms” and “Re-member Me – Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises Of Last Resort.”

Roach writes about some truly awkward sexual encounters in the name of science:

On the bed are a man and a woman. They are making the familiar movements made by millions of other couples on a bed that night, yet they look nothing like those couples. They have EKG wires leading from their thighs and arms, like a pair of lustful marionettes who managed to escape the puppet show and check into a cheap motel. Their mouths are covered by snorkel-type mouthpieces with valves. Trailing from each mouthpiece is a length of flexible tubing that runs through the wall to the room next door, where Bartlett is measuring their breathing rate. To ensure that they don’t breathe through their noses, the noses have been “lightly clamped.”

Another passage mentions two gymnasts who have sex in an MRI tube. (For science!) I’m impressed these people can perform under these conditions at all!

There’s only one passage that squicked me out a little bit – there’s a few paragraphs describing a urologist performing surgery on a penis and it’s…a little disturbing. That aside, though, this is a delightful book on an uncommon topic. It’s an easy read, which I don’t say about much nonfiction. It might be awkward to explain why you’re snickering over this book, though!

This is also my pick for the PopSugar prompt “Microhistory.”

From the cover of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex:

The study of sexual physiology – what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better – has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic.

Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women – or, for that manner, pandas? In Bonk, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm – two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth – can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.

Book Review: This Will Be My Undoing

this will be my undoingThis Will Be My Undoing: Living at the intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
by Morgan Jerkins
Memoir/Black Feminism
258 pages
Published 2018

I have a tough time reviewing books about Black Feminism. I enjoy reading them – well, maybe “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word. They can be tough. I am glad to have read them. But how to review them? I’m a white woman, it’s not really my place to critique these works. But it would be remiss of me to not talk about them – denying them the same space on my blog that I give to everything else I read is its own kind of erasure. I’m not sure how best to resolve this, but for this specific book, at least, I can talk about what I learned from it.

What I learned is that some of my childhood was straight-up racist. I always thought of my childhood as pretty idyllic – my parents were high school sweethearts, and to this day still adore each other. We lived in a house my parents owned. (My most formative years were actually spent in the house my mother grew up in; my parents bought it from my grandparents when I was seven.) We got to run around and play on a quiet neighborhood street where we knew all of our neighbors. We had pets of various species, we got technology fairly quickly since my father was a computer geek, we had a garden out back that Mom canned beans out of every year.

But I was homeschooled until eighth grade. (With Bob Jones and Abeka Books, notoriously Christian curriculum. I thought humans lived with dinosaurs well into my twenties.) We went to a conservative Christian church every Sunday. (And Tuesday. And some Fridays.) While my parents taught that I could be anything I wanted to be, the church definitely over rode that with “women should be subservient to men” and “don’t trust your own judgment, ask God/your parents/the elders.”

The incident that Jerkins’ book brought back to mind, though, was a party I went to. I’m pretty sure it was someone’s birthday party, but at a church. Not our church. There were a lot of people, though, so I could be wrong about the birthday party. It was this party where I got the tiny scar in my eyebrow – some kid broke the bat on the pinata and threw it behind him, where it hit me in the face. Before that, though, was the cake walk. There were footprints laid out on the concrete floor, and we paced around them while music played, kind of like musical chairs, I think. (I was younger than ten, my memory is a little fuzzy.) I won the cake! I thought nothing of this until reading This Will Be My Undoing.

“The cakewalk was a dance performed in the late nineteenth century at slave get-togethers. You lean or rear back and kick your feet out left and right or vice versa as you move forward……White people would watch them dance, fascinated by the exoticness of it all. These spectacles were purposeful humiliations. But the cakewalk evolved as slaves’ own form of subversion. While serving at large and fancy parties in the early 1800s, they would watch well-to-do white people perform strict and stiff dances, like cotillions and quadrilles, and mimic them, exaggerating the bowing and small skips and hops and adding some high steps and jumps. In diaries kept by white people in the antebellum South, the cakewalk is not depicted as a form of satire. After all, why would a sweet slave mock his benevolent master? To white people’s eyes, this imitation seemed like flattery. They were delighted that the slaves were attempting their civilized dances. In fact, they would hold competitions and the winning slaves would receive a cake, hence the name. Yet they were being mocked, right in front of their faces.”

WHY WAS THIS BEING HELD AT A CHURCH PARTY? I don’t recall if it was all white kids, but it probably was. My hometown was not very ethnically diverse. The more I learn – academically, politically, socially, secularly – the more I realize my childhood was pretty fucked up in a lot of different ways. I don’t know if it was more or less fucked up than most white kids’ childhoods – white supremacy is insidious. I was an ignorant child at the time, but to realize, decades later, how racist holding a cakewalk is, stopped me in my tracks. (Incidentally, this means that calling something “a cakewalk” has its roots in racism, like so many other things in our language. Cakewalks weren’t easy – but the best dancers made them look that way.)

So that’s what I can say about this book. I learned something about my childhood. Beyond that, all I will offer is that Jerkins is an excellent writer; the book flows well and is an easy read, despite the subject matter not being easy. Read it. It’s important.

From the cover of This Will Be My Undoing:

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’ highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today—perfect for fans of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

Morgan Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.