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Merle

Merle

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie

I enjoyed this book a lot: it’s an entertaining and accessible biography that is nevertheless serious and thorough, and with a fascinating subject to boot. Born a princess in a tiny German principality in the early 18th century, Catherine (actually named Sophia, until the then-Empress of Russia renamed her upon her conversion to Orthodoxy) was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne. Unfortunately, her early friendship with her deeply damaged teenaged husband soon soured, and when he ascended the throne almost 20 years later, Catherine soon deposed him and took the throne for herself. She ruled for nearly 35 years, expanded Russia’s territory, attempted with limited success to bring Enlightenment ideas to the country, carried on lively correspondence with philosophers, patronized the arts, and had a lively love life that may or may not have involved a second, secret marriage but certainly included a succession of boy toys in her later years.

 

Massie gives each part of Catherine’s life its due, from her childhood through the end of her reign; once she takes the throne, he spends more time on the wars and policy issues than her personal life, while still giving space to the latter. Fortunately, many of Catherine’s letters survived, and she wrote a memoir (though hardly a complete one), which allows the author to integrate her own words into the text. It’s quite a history lesson – I learned a ton about Russia and about European politics at the time – but Massie’s writing remains highly readable and entertaining. I read this with as much enjoyment as if it had been a novel. Massie’s take on Catherine is admiring but not hagiographic; it’s clear, for instance, how some of her ideals fell by the wayside as she grew older.

 

Nevertheless, there are some issues. Massie cites sources only for direct quotations, leaving readers in the dark as to the provenance of his other information. This is particularly problematic when he writes about Catherine’s childhood, drawing distinctions between what she wrote in her memoir and how she “really felt” (how does he know)? While he doesn’t seem to be making any particular argument with the book, he also doesn’t highlight where his interpretation may differ from the mainstream: he may be entirely convinced based on his research that Catherine’s son and heir was fathered by her lover rather than her husband, but it appears this view is not as universally accepted as his treatment of it as uncontroversial fact might have you believe. Finally, he seems too forgiving of Catherine’s failure to do anything about serfdom, though to his credit he does describe its abuses in detail.

 

All that said, I think this is an excellent biography, both entertaining and educational. And I appreciated the sections in which Massie goes a bit beyond his primary subject: the French Revolution chapter has come in for criticism, but as someone who came into it not understanding how events proceeded there, I found it helpful. Other sections, like the mini-biography of John Paul Jones, seemed a little tangential but were still interesting and helped paint a fuller picture of the times. I would definitely recommend this book to those who enjoy popular history or biography.

Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century by Susan Naquin and Evelyn Rawski

Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century - Susan Naquin, Evelyn S. Rawski

This is an informative book, but a very academic one, in the sense that it speaks in generalities, abstractions and conclusions rather than specific people or incidents, colorful examples or stories around major events. The authors cover a lot of information about politics, the economy, religion, social structure, employment and leasing relationships, etc., in 18th century China. This is a good book if you're interested in crops and industries located in specific areas, the status of intellectuals and civil service examinations, who took responsibility for public works, how tightly controlled by the emperor different areas of the country were, and what popular pilgrimage sites were located in different regions. It's not as good if you're looking for a sense of what people's lives were like, or if you want your history enlivened by human interest anecdotes; aside from emperors, who are discussed in terms of their policies, I think only a couple of people are even mentioned by name. And it definitely seems like a compilation of research rather than a book in dialogue with others, since it seems to stick to pretty anodyne information without much analysis. The cultural information in the first half is still interesting, though the "Regional Societies" section dominating the second half was a slog, largely documenting the major products and ethnic groups of each region. (Somewhat confusingly, the authors have chosen to refer to ethnic minorities by their historical Chinese names, such as "Miao" for the Hmong, rather than the names modern readers are more likely to be familiar with. They use archaic names for cities, like Peking, as well.) I don't want to penalize an academic book too hard for being academic (though I really wish more popular histories were available in English), but it would have been nice if it were more engaging.

Medicine by Steve Parker

Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History - Steve Parker

This is an interesting and well-designed coffee table book, which nevertheless contains a lot of text – definitely not one I read through in a single sitting. It covers a lot of material and some of the illustrations are actually really cool, including pictures of historical medical instruments and microscopes. It’s definitely western-centric although I think the publishers would deny it: there are spreads on Asian and Middle Eastern medicine but they are not the focus, and scientists and doctors from these cultures tend to be mentioned as a collective, rather than being individually profiled like the white Europeans (I’m not sure a single person of color is profiled in the book. Maybe Ibn Sina). The organization is also a bit rough: officially the book is organized chronologically, but really it’s organized topically – so diabetes comes up at the point in history when a treatment was developed, and then there’s some information at the beginning of the spread on historical discoveries about diabetes. That said, it’s a coffee table book, and I think it’s pretty good for what these big illustrated books are intended to do.

The People of Paris by Daniel Roche

The People of Paris: An Essay In Popular Culture In The 18th Century - Daniel Roche

Certainly an informative book, but claiming a “highly readable style” is taking it too far. This is an academic text about the material and social conditions of Parisians in the 18th century. Parts of it (the first chapter or two in particular) consist of wordy academic language that doesn’t say very much, but other parts are extremely specific – what items of clothing were owned by what percentage of the population upon their death; what percentage of people picked up for crimes were capable of signing their names, etc. The author is very explicit about what sources he’s using and seems careful not to overstate his data. He’s also very interested in distinctions among “the people” rather than treating them as a monolith – servants lived differently from wage earners, for instance, even at the same income level, and were generally the means of transmission of culture between the rich and the poor. Also just some really interesting stuff in here: apparently everything was for sale on the streets of Paris, from songs (apparently people would actually buy the sheet music after hearing them sung, which is rather sweet) to secondhand food (leftovers from their employers’ tables being sold off by servants).

I should also add that despite the title, this is more than an essay – at 277 pages of text (there are no endnotes or reference pages though there are occasional footnotes – the sources are discussed in the text itself and most of the content appears to come from the author's original research), it’s a pretty standard-sized book.

My criticisms of the book are perhaps beside the point since I’m not sure it was ever intended for a general audience anyway, but here they are: first, it assumes knowledge of French history and society on the reader’s part. Even without having much I generally understood it, but there were some weird bits, like where the author refuted the notion that the Parisian poor didn’t have children because they either abandoned them or the kids ran away…. by giving statistics on the class from which abandoned children came, to prove that a large percentage came from higher up the social hierarchy. I was so confused by this – why were all of these people abandoning their kids? How do we know who was responsible? What did abandonment mean in this context (apparently some parents later returned)? At what age were children actually running away, and what happened to all these solo kids? Relatedly, the translator – despite translating the book from French to English presumably for those who, you know, don’t read French – left a number of words in French, including occasional key concepts and the titles of all of the books mentioned that were owned by Parisians.

Overall, I think this book will be quite useful for those doing research on eighteenth century Parisian society, less so for anybody else. Interesting stuff though and the author certainly seems to have reached his conclusions as a result of careful study.

On the Rez by Ian Frazier

On The Rez - Ian Frazier

This is an interesting book, though as others have said, the last third is by far the best. Frazier, a white travel writer, befriends an Oglala Sioux man named Le from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and writes about his time hanging out with Le and his friends and family. He also writes more broadly about Native Americans today and about the last few centuries of history. The last third of the book is a biography of a basketball star named SuAnne Big Crow who was an inspiration for many before her tragic death as a teenager.

The content is interesting and Frazier’s writing is fine, but I do think he could have done more with the first two-thirds of the book. These chapters are often pretty diffuse, and he goes off on some weird tangents, like trying to hunt down every historically Native American bar in the country and chronicle their bar fights. Some of the broader information he provides is interesting, including some firsthand accounts of the American Indian Movement. But the first two-thirds was a bit of a drag overall.

I also wondered about the quality of Frazier’s information. At one point, in a brief discussion of eastern tribes, he mentions “the Lumbee of North Carolina, a tribe which has lived for a hundred years in the mountains around Lumberton unrecognized by anyone but themselves.” It’s cool that he mentioned the Lumbee, a group few Americans have heard of although they’re apparently the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, but basically everything in that sentence is wrong. Lumberton is nowhere near mountains – it’s in the flat coastal plain of eastern North Carolina – the Lumbee have been around for a lot longer than a hundred years, and the tribe gained state recognition in the 19th century, and a weird mostly-useless federal acknowledgment in 1956. (You can read more here or here). As always, when an author messes up the things you know, you have to wonder at the accuracy of the things you don’t.

All that said, SuAnne Big Crow’s story is really fantastic, and it’s worth reading the book for that part alone. Frazier is on much surer footing here with a narrative to follow and many people who knew SuAnne to contribute their memories, and I wish he’d spent more of the book on this type of writing and less on hanging out with Le.

At any rate, interesting book, and the author seems to be respectful and to view Native Americans as actual people rather than embodiments of stereotype, whether good or bad. He could have allocated his page count better, but it’s worth a read for those who are interested in the topic.

The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley

The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace - Lucy Worsley

This is an entertaining, readable, yet well-researched look at the royal courts of George I and II of England (early to mid-18th century). Worsley picks out a handful of people and follows them throughout the book: a royal mistress who was also the queen’s lady-in-waiting; an ambitious painter who got the commission for a palace mural; a few hanger-ons who wrote extensively about their contacts with the royals; a feral child who was brought to court as a curiosity. A solid chunk of the book is also spent on the domestic intrigues of the royal family themselves – and wow, did these people tear each other apart at every opportunity – but we also learn a fair bit about the lives of the people around them. The book is worth reading for its storytelling alone.

Meanwhile, it taught me a lot about how the royal court functioned. The crowds of nobles at court, as it turned out, weren’t just the idle rich; much of what they were scheming for was jobs, which paid actual salaries, upon which many of them depended. Even menial positions close to the royalty were occupied by the nobility: we see a lot of one equerry, a sort of unarmed honor guard whose job was to follow the king around all day without apparently having much personal interaction with him, and who nevertheless is the son of an earl. Overall being a courtier sounds fairly miserable from a modern perspective (and based on their writings, at least some of these folks thought so too): always surrounded by other people, and if you were a woman, you wore incredibly restrictive clothing and took hours getting ready for an event. Though the maids of honor also got to raise quite a ruckus without anyone seeming to care much about their behavior. If you were married to someone in the line of succession though, you were expected to give birth before an audience of high-ranking men.

I did wish Worsley’s writing about the rules of court was more comprehensive. For instance, she mentions that no one was allowed to leave the king’s presence without his permission, which led to one unfortunate lady-in-waiting peeing all over the floor. To which my question is: how did the system normally work to keep this from happening all the time? Did the king spend tons of time granting people permissions to leave? Or was it understood when you attended an event that you had to wait for the king to leave first? Did this rule apply even in the crowded drawing-room gatherings, large enough to attract gate-crashers as well as actual courtiers? Did people dash out whenever the king himself left to use the toilet? Or did they all go around a bit dehydrated to ensure they wouldn’t have to? Or maybe the whole thing was more of an etiquette suggestion that this one lady took way too seriously? Maybe Worsley can’t explain further because no one wrote it down. But the book definitely left me curious about how the practices we see in the narrative worked in other contexts.

At any rate, this is entertaining history, gossipy without being frivolous, and I definitely learned a lot about the Hanovers from it (not having known anything about them previously). Worth reading for those interested in royal history.

Soulstealers by Philip Kuhn

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 - Philip A. Kuhn

I'm sorry to say that this one turned out to be too dry for me; it's very much an academic history, though it certainly contains some interesting facts. I was particularly struck by the fact that in 18th century China, if a man wore his hair in a way other than the tonsure and queue prescribed by the Manchu rulers, not only could he be punished, but so could his landlord and neighbors - presumably for not having brought him into line themselves. We tend to talk about Asian societies as being "collectivist" but I hadn't before encountered a concrete example of this being ingrained in law, so that letting one's neighbors alone to mind their business could be quite a dangerous choice. Also, readers should be prepared for descriptions of judicial torture in open court - yikes.

 

I made it to around page 80.

Behind the Throne by Adrian Tinniswood

Behind the Throne - Adrian Tinniswood

This is a mildly interesting but overall unremarkable book, with a title that doesn’t quite describe its content. While the book is billed as covering the workings of the British royal household over several centuries – from Elizabeth I to II – it seems to spend more time on the personal lives of the monarchs and royal families themselves. Also, the narrative seems to be determined by just whatever information is most available about each reign, which means it doesn’t trace consistent subjects through time. I did find the stories included interesting, but I also came in not knowing much about the history of the British royal family. There’s some interesting stuff about the workings of the household too, though I think this book is best read for general interest rather than any kind of focused research purposes. The writing style is smooth and it makes for easy reading.

It got a bit weird at the end when the author started sneering about the unwashed masses daring to sully the royals with interest in and opinions about their personal lives, with particular venom for those former staff who wrote memoirs describing the royals’ personal lives. He then quotes those very memoirs for basically all of the information he provides about Elizabeth II and her family – which, she gave him some kind of award so best be careful I guess. And he conveniently ignores that this book itself is basically 450 years of gossip about the royals and those around them. Seems a little hypocritical to condemn the very interest that produces your own book sales.

For those interested in this sort of thing, I found The Courtiers better; it has a stronger narrative because it’s more focused on a particular time period (George I and II), and there’s a little more focus on the people around the royals than on the royals themselves. There are definitely a bunch of interesting tidbits and anecdotes in this one too, but Behind the Throne doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories - Anna Summers, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This is a really interesting, distinctive short story collection, focusing on domestic life in late Soviet/post-Soviet Russia; most of the stories take place in and around cramped Moscow apartments. Several generations often live together with too little space and too little money, parents often suspect that their adult children are scheming to take ownership of the precious apartment, and when love appears it's imperfect, marked by the characters' own deficiencies, and can't be relied upon to last.

The stories are very short, ranging from 4-18 pages in length, and with generous font and spacing. And the writing style is pared-down and matter-of-fact. I found the stories interesting and enjoyable though, and they certainly give a strong sense of what life was like for regular people in this particular place and time. This is apparently a compilation of stories the author wrote over several decades, but they're remarkably consistent in tone and quality. My favorite was "Like Penelope," and other stand-outs for me were "Ali-Baba" and "Eros's Way," but it doesn't surprise me a bit to see different readers preferring different stories. The translator also did a fantastic job of rendering the stories in common, sometimes biting English, so that it's hard to believe they were translated at all.

I can see why this collection doesn't work for everyone, given that the stories are relatively brief and often bleak. But I think it is worth a read. If for no other reason than that Petrushevskaya's work was banned in Russia even longer than some well-known political works (apparently for portraying too gritty a picture of everyday life)!

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent - Galen Beckett

I like historical fantasy novels a lot, and so this one – drawing heavily on various 19th century novels, including the works of Jane Austen, The Turn of the Screw, and Jane Eyre – seemed an ideal fit, especially given a rather charming writing style that draws on the style of works from the period, while still moving fairly quickly for the modern reader. Unlike other reviewers, I don’t take issue with how heavily this novel draws from its sources, which are at least varied, and it seems to me there’s plenty from the author’s own imagination here. (Any claim that any of the male characters resemble Mr. Darcy, in personality or situation or plot function, is absurd.) Unfortunately, too many plot elements are contrived or stupid or rely on characters being stupid, and there’s some serious dissonance between where the book seems to think our sympathies ought to go, and where mine actually went.

Warning: spoilers below, so read at your own risk!

The book follows three protagonists. Ivy, the most prominent, is clearly based on a combination of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood; she’s the sensible young woman who keeps her household running in spite of her silly mother, unworldly younger sisters, and a father who seems to have gone insane from magical causes and spends his days in the attic muttering to himself. Rafferdy is the frivolous elder son of a lord, who does his best to bury any sense of responsibility he may have in fashion and parties. Eldyn, Rafferdy’s friend, is a young man who has fallen into poverty and wants to restore his family’s fortunes. Eldyn doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the story, which is perhaps fortunate because he’s both an idiot who falls for obvious scams and refuses for no apparent reason to consider using the magical talent he clearly has, and an asshole who leaves his younger sister locked up alone all day, then when he returns and she begs him to take her out, leaves to go carousing by himself instead. And yet it appears we’re supposed to sympathize with him.

The plot moves somewhat slowly, as you’d expect for period fantasy. The first third sets up some magical troubles while following the characters through the not!London social scene. The second part switches to the first person and follows Ivy’s adventures as a governess at a remote estate; this part is a bit creepy, the influence of The Turn of the Screw obvious even to me (who hasn’t read it), with shades of Jane Eyre and Rebecca. The third part returns to sharing time between the three protagonists and builds up to a magical confrontation. I did find the book to be entertaining reading throughout, with a polished style and a well-developed and varied setting. Its fictional country is clearly based on England, and the author has clearly done some research, touching on issues like the policy of enclosure that I wasn’t even aware of.

That said, it’s riddled with plot holes. The whole existence of Part 2 depends on Ivy apparently forgetting a major revelation in Part 1: on visiting her father’s house, she learns that it can’t be opened, despite the fact that numerous magicians have tried, and not only that, when she tries a mysterious masked man appears, temporarily paralyzes her, and warns her that opening the house would bring great evil into the world. Then on a change in the family fortunes, she blithely sets out to work a few months as a governess to save up for the family’s moving costs to that very house. Um…? Some never-mentioned memory charm must have been worked on the girl, since she then proceeds to learn that she’s adopted, but never mentions or thinks of it again once reunited with her (now known to be adoptive) family.

Also really dumb: Ivy’s marrying a man who has consistently manipulated and withheld information from her for his own gain, despite her being warned by multiple people. The masked man providing Ivy with only the most cryptic possible information despite the fate of the world supposedly being at stake. At a crucial moment, when time is of the essence, he appears only to tell Ivy to go home, causing her to lose precious time as she rushes off to read a conveniently-timed letter informing her of a certain person’s villainy – if the masked man cares about the fate of the world, why didn’t he just tell her? The character who’s revealed to be a villain showing up for no reason but to helpfully confirm that he in fact is villainous, then promptly leaving. Ivy not having the sense to ask her two young charges alone and with any modicum of patience about the disturbing things they’ve been seeing and clearly want to talk about.

Then there’s the weirdness about whom we’re supposed to be rooting for. Eldyn is presented as a victim but acts like a douche. Mr. Quent is presented as a Mr. Rochester, while exposing the unconsenting Ivy to dangers far more serious than a hidden first wife – and all while Ivy has a better romantic alternative. You can tell from the title who she marries anyway. In the macro plot, we’re first presented with a world in which the rich and powerful are perpetrating great injustice… only to see the rebels demonized and our heroes inexplicably siding with the status quo. I felt more sympathy for the rebels.

So, although I had high hopes for this at the beginning, I doubt I’ll read the sequels. It’s good mindless fun, though, if you’re looking for a fantasy beach read.

Dr. Johnson's London by Liza Picard

Dr Johnson's London: Everyday Life in London in the Mid 18th Century - Liza Picard

An interesting and well-researched reference on everyday life in London in the mid 18th century, particularly for the poor and middle classes, this book covers everything from housing to medicine to jobs and labor relations to entertainment. It’s minutely organized and indexed, making it very easy to refer back to a particular section; individual sections, however, are quite short, no surprise when the text comes in at under 300 pages for a broad variety of material. I found a number of surprises about the 18th century: at the same time, water was being piped into Londoners’ homes through pipes made of elm buried under the streets (wooden pipes? And we think of water utilities as being a much later development), and convicted criminals might be put in the pillory or whipped through the streets (which sounds downright medieval). This is not a narrative – Samuel Johnson, of Dictionary of the English Language fame, provides a time frame but is only occasionally mentioned – but it should be both useful and accessible to those interested in learning more about the period.

Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst - Robert M. Sapolsky

This brick of a book purports to be an interdisciplinary explanation of human behavior, drawing from biology, psychology, and sociology, and everything from primate studies to well-known works in various fields. It’s big, at 717 pages of actual text followed by references; it’s broad; and as such it’s a little bit simplistic. Even at this size, there’s not quite room to develop all of the material. The first half or so of the book is more focused on the “hard” science, beginning with how neurons communicate with each other, and working its way up through hormones, genes, brain development through childhood and adulthood and how this is affected by trauma, and the evolution of species. The second half is more focused on psychology: us vs. them dichotomies, moral decisionmaking, the causes of violence, and whether the criminal justice system really makes sense when all human behavior is ultimately driven by biology. (Sapolsky argues no, but I’m not so sure. Where would we be as a species, or as individuals, if we all just shrugged our shoulders and gave in to ideas of biological determinism?)

I certainly learned a lot from this book, which contains a ton of information presented in a way that is understandable to a non-scientist – though I struggled a bit with some of the early chapters. It provides a strong synthesis and framework for understanding information from biology and social sciences. That said, on the subjects that I did know something about, it seemed a little simplified. Fair enough; entire books have been written on subjects that comprise a single chapter here. As other reviewers have suggested, Sapolsky perhaps accepts too many psychological studies uncritically, without discussing psychology’s replication crisis, in which dozens of famous studies, when run again using the exact same methods and parameters, failed to produce the same headline-worthy results. That said, in general Sapolsky seems to take a fair approach to his material, presenting and evaluating multiple viewpoints in areas that have generated controversy. His writing is readable given the subject matter, and there’s a goofy-professor personality behind it that occasionally shines through. I wouldn’t take everything here as gospel – and I suppose we never should, since new scientific discoveries regularly require us to reevaluate what we thought was true – but the book did leave me a little more educated than I was before.

A Visitor's Guide to Georgian England by Monica Hall

A Visitor's Guide to Georgian England - Monica Hall

An interesting short book that gives a lively sense of 18th century England. It’s a little uneven; the chapter on health and medicine is eye-opening and informative, while the one about sports doesn’t even really stick to the time period. The conceit of being a guide for potential time-travelers is cute, but maybe a little too cute; I’m not sure much is achieved by advising readers on which vaccinations to get beforehand. Dr. Johnson's London contains much of the same information, but in a more strictly organized and thorough way. This book has a bit more narrative, informality and humor about it, though, which may recommend itself more to the casual reader.

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays - Esmé Weijun Wang

Although this book seems well-loved overall, it wasn’t my favorite. It’s a collection of personal essays (which, in this case, is quite different from a memoir) by an Asian-American woman with schizoaffective disorder, largely about different aspects of the way her illness has affected her life. On their own, I think these essays are good: well-written, often weaving together multiple strands that at first seem unrelated, and reflective when it comes to the author’s experience of her serious mental illness.

But together, the collection feels like less than the sum of its parts. They don’t quite come together into a whole, and I didn’t come away feeling like I had a good understanding of the author’s lived experience overall, in the way that one hopefully does after reading a memoir. Some essays have a very narrow focus – like how viewing a particular movie in the theater caused her to lose touch with reality a bit – but the larger problem is that they often come across as detached and academic. In writing about her trauma, for instance, the author will digress to give us an entire paragraph on which books lay out the proper techniques for EMDR therapy, where one can purchase them, and for how much.

In the final paragraphs of an essay about being hospitalized, Wang writes, “I maintain, years later, that not one of my three involuntary hospitalizations helped me. I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas.” This was startling to read, not because of the sentiment – unfortunately, this experience of hospitalization is typical of the personal accounts I’ve read – but because the essay itself is rather mild and detached, doing nothing to lead the reader to the conclusion that the author ultimately draws. By this point, readers ought to have felt the trauma of these experiences themselves, rather than being surprised by her feelings at the end.

In the end, not a book I’d discourage you from reading if you’re really interested, but also not the best I’ve read on the subject. If you want to read a memoir about living with schizophrenia, try The Center Cannot Hold first.

Let's Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Let's Tell This Story Properly - Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I thought Kintu was fantastic, so was looking forward to this short story collection. Which, as it turned out, is good, but not quite as good as I was hoping. Though admittedly, I read it soon after three great collections, which set a high bar for short stories.

The first seven stories, just over half the book, follow Ugandan immigrants in Manchester, mostly in the present day, though one story is set in the 1950s. These stories, while interesting, are rather dreary, very much about social issues and always commenting on The Ugandan Immigrant Experience, to the point that the commentary started to feel like a crutch; can’t the human stories stand on their own without having to be representative? Most of these stories probably are strong enough to stand on their own, though they feel a little relentless in their dreariness.

But the last five stories, set in Uganda and generally dealing with returnees from Britain, are a breath of fresh air; while social issues are still central, these stories bring a lightness, openness and warmth missing from the first half of the collection. And the second half just keeps getting better as it goes; the title story and “Love Made in Manchester” are on fire.

Overall, an interesting collection of well-written stories that discuss various issues affecting Ugandans moving between home and England. I like it when short stories leave a bit more to ponder than these do, when the characters are a bit more memorable, but there are some really interesting situations here, and some fun and creativity (such as the story from the point-of-view of a dog). It is worth a read, though I think this author may excel more at novels than short stories.

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth - Sarah Smarsh

This book is poverty memoir, family saga and nonfiction piece rolled into one. The family memoir is interesting and enjoyable. The nonfiction aspect, though, is hamstrung by the author’s refusal to cite her sources. And the whole book is jumbled together, jumping from one topic to the next without taking the time to fully consider and develop ideas or draw important distinctions.

Sarah Smarsh grew up poor in rural Kansas. On her mom’s side, she came from several generations of high-crisis poverty: women who dropped out of school young, had babies as teenagers with the wrong men, and were constantly on the move, escaping from one bad situation into another. Smarsh got lucky in that before her birth, her grandmother married a stable farmer; when her parents’ lives were too chaotic, she moved in with her grandparents at the farm, and her grandfather and father loved and cared for her, unlike many of the men in her female relatives’ lives. But the farm was always poor despite the family’s hard work; everyone had to struggle to make ends meet, and in working hard to get through school and escape her family’s way of life, Smarsh had to struggle against everything her family knew, remaking herself into a person they hardly recognized.

Smarsh's writing is good, the stories compelling, and Smarsh delves into the emotional effects of her own life and her family’s lives, while also discussing the bigger picture and the trends in America. She does a great job of empathizing with her family members and portraying them fairly and sympathetically, even when their issues and their actions were hurtful to her. At the same time, the subject is all jumbled: each (long) chapter has a broad theme, and while her story of her own life is mostly chronological, within each chapter she’ll tell various excerpts of the lives of her mother, father, grandmother, and sometimes even great- and great-great-grandparents, and then intersperse it with historical information and political opinions. While perhaps less artistic, I think the family saga would have made a lot more sense in chronological order, rather than telling different bits of the same person’s life story in different places scattered all throughout the book.

And the broader nonfiction aspect also leaves something to be desired. The author includes no citations, nor even a list of the works that had the greatest influence on this one; she notes only at the beginning that “Points on United States and world history, politics, public policy, and other matters beyond the private experience are based on news stories, studies, and books I deemed accurate and reliable in my capacity as a journalist. They are conveyed with my perspective.” Oh, come on. Journalism isn’t supposed to be taken on faith; you tell us where you got your information, and then we can evaluate it. And this is a shame also for those interested in delving further into some of the topics discussed.

Then too, the author – who apparently has political ambitions – seems eager to speak for poverty as a whole, even while noting that her young life as a poor farmer is so unusual in today’s America that many of the friends she made later assumed it was a lifestyle that no longer existed. Her family is resourceful and even self-sufficient in ways that are rare today: they produce at least some of their own food; they build and repair their own houses. Smarsh’s family carries a lot of social problems – lots of drinking and partying, teen pregnancy, violent or absent fathers, constantly moving from one place to another and changing schools – but she also inherited a connection to the land and a trove of practical skills and knowledge that I think distinguishes her from most poor Americans. She’s really discussing two different types of poverty here – that of her mother’s family and that of her grandfather – but never acknowledges the distinction, nor that many people in poverty have an experience unlike either of these.

I generally enjoyed reading this book; I liked the author’s voice, in spite of her addressing the book to an imaginary daughter, and I found her and her family’s stories interesting and compelling. But I don’t like authors expecting me to take their arguments on faith, and I found the nonfiction aspects shallow.