Books. Opinions. Good times.

Posts tagged ‘nonfiction’

Southbound: The Barefoot Sisters

 

southbound

by: Lucy ad Susan Letcher

 

After reading Wild, which I’ve yet to review (but it’s excellent, go read it) I’ve been looking forward to reading more of the hiker memoir subgenre.   I was shopping for microspikes and ran across this book and had to buy it – barefoot hiking the Appalachian Trail?  I don’t think I wore shoes in any sort of consistent manner until I was in college, so I was immediately hooked.

That being said, I have mixed feelings about this book.  It’s by two sisters, Lucy/Isis and Susan/jackrabbit, who, as I said, decided to hike the Appalachian Trail barefoot after graduating college.  Their biggest motivation, I think, was to take some time to figure out what to do with the rest of their life.  The book flows a little too seamlessly between the two sisters’ point of view – their writing styles are so similar that I often lost track of who was narrating, even though each section had a header stating the name of the narrating sister.

There’s very little introspection in the book – perhaps the sisters didn’t have that much to figure out or perhaps they just didn’t feel like sharing.  But either way, it’s not the close personal narrative that Wild was.

Neither is it a book that really connects you with nature.  They seem to spend as much time off the trail as on, and though I know they narrated some of what they saw on the trail, none of it particularly impacted me.  They do spend a lot of time on the various other hikers they met and interacted with, which I found very amusing and engrossing (with one major exception.)   They also don’t spend much time speaking towards their hiking technique, gear, ect… – they talk about their wood-burning snow and brush on the difficulties/advantages of hiking barefoot but not in any technical depth.

I guess my big question after reading this novel was – what kind of book is it?  It’s neither deeply personal, deeply connected to nature, or a hiker’s novel.   It brushes against all three but doesn’t really settle on anything, which left me wanting more depth in one area or another.   I loved all the narratives of the people they met on the trail – I think that was rather the best part – but given that many of these encounters took place in motels, hostels, and towns on the trail, it seems that the best part of the book isn’t actually about hiking.

That being said, the book itself was engrossing.  I wanted to see what happened next, and I loved hearing about the difficulties and ease of life on the trail. I sped through the book – it’s an easy read, though long – and certainly, I think, it’s worth the time spent reading it if the subject catches your fancy.  I would categorize this as a beach read book – light, fun, easy to get through and very enjoyable.  Sometimes lack of depth – though unexpected here – is exactly what you’re looking for in a book.

The biggest caveat about the book is the winter portion, which focuses on their interaction with a family known as The Family from the North.  This family has been evicted from their homestead in Maine due to tax evasion – the parents are fundamentalist Christians and don’t believe in the government – and are hiking the Appalachian Trail south for, I guess, lack of better options.  (Ironically, the father of this family – while HIKING THE AT – says that he doesn’t pay taxes because he takes nothing from the government.)

While the family is certainly sweet and kind, they – along with the sisters – end up hiking through the worst winter in 19 years, starting in south Virginia and continuing on through the Smokies.  I have spent some time winter hiking, and, while I love it, it’s not a sport I would include my two year old child in.  Or, heck, even my twelve year old child, if it were an extended trek.  Though the sisters highlight the many good characteristics of this family, it’s clear that all four of the children’s educations are being neglected for over a year.  More concerning, the entire family nearly dies in a blizzard, multiple people sustain long-term frostnip-induced injuries, and the children are repeatedly placed in extraordinarily dangerous situations where they survive mainly by luck.

I certainly think that adults should do as they please, and the sisters wanted to brave winter hiking with little training and even less preparation.  That’s fine.  And the parents of the family can do the same.  But risking the children’s lives, from hiking in dangerous weather to a lack of cash to purchase quality winter supplies to not having enough money to buy food (the parents were undernourished, especially the mother) is not something I can agree on, in the sense that there were other, much less dangerous options to deal with the problems presented by poverty.  And while the book doesn’t hide the facts, the sisters definitely choose to emphasize the nature of the family over the reality of their decisions to a very extreme degree.  Unlike Wild, which had frank acknowledgement that Cheryl Strayed did not do enough research and was not prepared and was incredibly lucky, I didn’t get the same sense from this book that the people involved regretted and acknowledged their lack of preparation.

So I can’t really recommend this book to non-hikers, because it’s a lot of escaping preventable situations only by luck and I’m not sure I would want anyone to model their behavior off this.  And I can’t really recommend it to hikers, because I imagine it will make most experienced hikers’ heads’ explode.  So what I will say is that it’s a decent story about the trials of hiking unprepared, and if you read it, you should do so realizing that one would actually need to be much more prepared to hike the AT (or the PCT or anywhere, really.)

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Mistress: A History of the Other Woman

mistress

by: Elizabeth Abbott

I was really excited when I found this book.  A history of mistresses – what’s not to love? It’s a carefully curated collection of mistresses’ stories; generally famous ones, whose stories tend to be between 3-7 pages long.  There are 400 pages in the book, so there a quite a few stories covered.  It is the perfect book for any stop and start readers, as it’s really easy to fit in a page or three here and there.

I was even more excited when I started reading it and found it was actually pretty darn good.  Abbott focuses mostly on British and American mistresses from the 19th and 20th centuries, though she does touch on East Asia, the Middle East, Ancient Greek, women indigenous to the Americas, and a little bit of non-UK Europe. She does cover quite a few people, and none in much depth.  I actually really enjoyed that aspect; it was like a survey course in mistressdom and it definitely piqued my interest in a few women in particular.

Abbott is a good but not great writer and there are a few parts, especially the conclusions of individual stories, where it feels a little stilted.  There’s a few minor organization issues that detract from a smooth reading experience but nothing that should keep you from enjoying the book.

One of the best things about the book was how explicit she was in discussing and analyzing the situations these women were placed in, merely by being born a woman.  She looks with a sympathetic eye towards the times they were born into, while also being honest about their flaws and mistakes as people.  The amount of context she manages to add, in such very short spaces, is amazing and very well-done.

I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes with the wording she used about sex when talking about women who were unfaithful.  But, halfway through the book, it became clear she was treating the men in her story the same way she was treating the women.  I couldn’t tell if it was my own bias influencing how I read it or if Abbott had a slight bias that was peeking through.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter. For the most part, Abbott’s book is well-balanced and fair, dealing with both the moral implications and the realities of the world people were living in.

I was really intrigued by the women she chose – everyone from the desperate and loved-crazed to the practical and money-driven. There were rich and famous women, middle class women, poor women, women who wanted fame by association, women who wanted marriage, and women who wanted freedom.  It was truly eye-opening.  It painted a picture of what being a mistress was like while showcasing such a wide variety of women who chose to become mistresses.

Sometimes there was a little more focus on the man the mistress was sleeping with than the woman herself, but I think this was more a result of what information was available – often the man’s life was more thoroughly chronicled than the woman’s.  All in all, it was a really excellent book looking at a position that has been so important but so under-discussed throughout history. I would highly recommend it.

If you’re into women’s history, alternative looks at history, or the lives of famous figures, you should definitely give this book a chance! If you’re not into tales of moral ambiguity or if clunky conclusions are a pet peeve of yours, than you might want to give it pass.

Holocaust literature

Ug, sorry guys.  I haven’t been reading much lately; the sun’s come out so I’ve been out and about as much as possible – my energy levels increase dramatically as the amount of sunshine I get increase.   Also, I’ve been spending way too much time finishing series on Netflix instead of reading.  Oops.

This isn’t a book review.  It’s a rant/ask for suggestions.

One of my friends made a Holocaust joke last week. I hate Holocaust jokes.  They’re never okay and I seriously doubt they’ll ever be okay. I don’t know how one can think of the Holocaust without being at least tinged by horror and a peculiar sort of grief. Nobody laughed, I told her it was too soon (it will always be too soon), and she called us all overly sensitive. Except when 5 people (one of them Jewish, now that I think about it) don’t laugh…usually it’s just not that funny.  Okay, done ranting.

But I am fascinated by Holocaust literature.  Something about the horrors of it fascinates me.  That it could happen, that people actively worked to make it happen, boggles my mind. The depth and breadth of emotions evoked when trying to conceptualize genocide are worth exploring, if only to find the courage to stand up for injustice when you see it.

With all that said, I’m starting The Business of Genocide, a book looking at the middle managers of Hitler’s regime.  The paper pushers, accountants, and other seemingly ordinary white-collar workers who made the logistics of committing genocide possible.  I also have Schindler’s List, which I may read next if I can take it.

Any favorite Holocaust literature out? Fiction or nonfiction, what books do you find particularly compelling and why? What do I absolutely have to read in order to get a better understanding? Leave a comment below!

Aside

Sex and Punishment

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire by: Eric Berkowitz

I’m a little scared to do an Internet search for this one, so we’re going pictureless. This is a nonfiction book examining sex laws since Mesopotamia.  Except for the beginning, which touches on early laws in the Middle East, it focuses on Western law – think Greco-Roman, Western Europe, and American up until 1923.

It’s very engagingly written and easy to read.  There were two small factual errors that I caught, which makes me a little wary of the book, mostly because I didn’t know anything about the subject but the references looked pretty good, if lacking in primary resources for the historical things. Anyway, the subject is fascinating and pretty quirky. It does get fairly graphic in the punishments (legal) enactment department but that’s to be expected whenever you talk about medieval laws and apparently the Greeks and Romans were brutal as well.

It was mostly focused on the laws as written, the laws as enforced, and the punishments for breaking the laws.  The author did a great job, however, of explaining the social effects of the laws; he gives a lot of page space to the negative effects on women and gay or bisexual men.  Lesbians aren’t given as much attention but apparently they were mostly legally ignored, to the point where there were very few laws concerning same-sex female relationships.  There was one section exploring why – mainly the men in power just couldn’t conceive of women having sexual feelings outside of a man – in the latter half of the book.  He also spent some time talking about when the concept of sexuality came about and the population’s views on sex at the time. Very helpful.

Another thing I liked is that he was very good at pointing out legal allowances that were pretty much rape and the likelihood of that happening, such as how female servants were often raped by their employers with little to no recourse for protection or retaliation.  It could have been easy to omit or downplay the women or gay men in the book, so it’s nice that the book makes a point of talking about those who were most hurt by the laws.

I found the book fascinating and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject.  You’ll get all kinds of weird facts (like you could punish a man for sleeping with your wife in Ancient Greek by putting spikey fish in a place where no spiky fish should ever reside) and it gives a great historical perspective for the laws and attitudes the USA has today.  Berkowitz does an excellent job of setting the background for the laws and then connecting them across periods as necessary.

The writing was really excellent; succinct, informative, and it flows very well.  There are a couple of really weird transitions and the ending was nothing if not abrupt, but those were the only faults I found with the style. Overall, this book was fantastic.