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Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

July 9, 2014 2 comments

Old photographs of two women in suits against a background of a steamer ship.Summary:
In 1889, the world was obsessed with Jules Verne’s fictional work Around the World in 80 Days.  So when Nellie Bly, a human rights crusading female reporter in New York City, suggested taking a shp to Europe in first class then coming back in steerage, she was surprised to get a counter-offer: try to beat the fictional Fogg’s record for traveling around the world.  When The Cosmopolitan magazine heard about it, they sent their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip trying to beat her.  Only she left a day later and would go the opposite direction.  Bly would travel east to west (Europe first), Bisland would travel west to east (continental US first).  The women weren’t just taking different routes around the world, they had quite different backgrounds and personalities.  Bly overcame a northern, working-class background to break into newspapers and crusaded for the less-fortunate whenever the paper would allow her to.  Bisland was the daughter of a plantation owner.  Raised in southern gentility and with an intense interest in everything British.  She wrote a literary column for The Cosmopolitan.  One of these women would win the race, but would either beat the fictional Phineas Fogg?

Review:
With my interest in women’s history, I was surprised when I saw this title on Netgalley that I had never heard of this race around the world, although I had heard of Nellie Bly, due to her investigative report into Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution).  I knew I had to request it, and I’m quite glad I got a review copy.  Goodman tells not just the story of these two women but also immerses the reader into the newly global world of the late 1890s, both the good and the bad.

Goodman starts the book by introducing us to the two women who will race around the world.  He does an excellent job using primary source materials to give us both how others saw these women and how they saw themselves.  For instance, in describing Elizabeth Bisland, Goodman writes:

One of her admirers, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she had befriended in New Orleans, called her “a sort of goddess” and likened her conversation to hashish, leaving him disoriented for hours afterward. Another said, about talking with her, that he felt as if he were playing with “a beautiful dangerous leopard,” which he loved for not biting him. (loc 241)

While introducing the women, Goodman also talks at length about the role of women in journalism in the late 1800s and how hard it was for them to break into real reporting.  Jumping off from Bisland and Bly, describes how women were blocked from many journalism positions with excuses such as that the newsroom needed to be free to swear and not worry about a lady’s sensibilities.  Women were often barred to what was deemed the ladylike journalism of the society pages.  The hardest part of being a hardhitting female journalist at the time wasn’t the actual reporting but instead the reception of women in the newsroom.

The successful female journalist, McDonald suggested, should be composed of “one part nerve and two parts India rubber.” (loc 465)

Bisland and Bly and their race came at the beginning of having women journalists do some form of stunt journalism, which is how they started to break into hardhitting journalism.  Editors and owners discovered that readers enjoyed reading about women in stunt situations, such as learning how to stunt ride a horse, so this was their way in.  Thus, even if the reader dislikes the personalities of either or both of the racers, they come away with some level of respect for them both breaking into the business.

From here, Goodman starts following the women on their race around the world.  He takes the different legs of their journeys as a jumping-off point to discuss something historically relevant to that portion of the journey.  For instance, during Bly’s trip on the ocean liner to Europe, he discusses how the steamships worked, from the technical aspects of the steam to the class aspects of first class down to steerage.  During Bisland’s railroad trip across the United States, he discusses the railroad barons and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Thus, the reader is getting both the story of the race and historical context.  It’s a wonderful way to learn, as the historical explanations flesh out the settings around and expectations of the women, and the women lend a sense of realness to the historical situations and settings being described.

After the completion of the trip (and, no, I won’t tell you who won), Goodman explores the impact of the trip on the women’s lives and follows the rest of their lives to their deaths.  This part may feel a bit long and irrelevant to some readers, however often when people become famous for doing something, no one talks about the long-lasting impact of that fame or what the rest of their lives are like.  Seeing how both women reacted to the trip, their careers, and others puts them in a more complete light, giving the reader a complete picture of what the race did in their lives.  This complete picture of both of their lives is something I really appreciated and that also demonstrated that one shouldn’t judge people too fast.  They and their lives may turn out differently than you expect at first.

What would have made me love the book is if I had come away feeling like I could respect or look up to either woman.  Unfortunately, by the time I heard the full story of both of their lives, I found them both to be so deeply flawed that I couldn’t do that.  I respect them for breaking into the newspaper business, and perhaps if I was a journalist myself that would be enough to make me look up to them.  But each had a fatal flaw that made this not be a book about two role models but instead a book about two women.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep it from being a book I would return to over and over again.

Overall, Goodman does an excellent job using the true story of two female journalists’ race around the world in 1889 to 1890 to build a solid picture of the increasingly global world of that time.  The reader will come away both with having learned an incredible true story and details about the 1800s they might not have known before, told in a delightfully compelling manner.  Some readers might be a bit bothered by how flawed the two women journalists are or by the fact that the book goes on past the race to tell about the end of their lives in detail.  However, these are minor things that do not distract too much from the literary qualities of this historical nonfiction.  Recommended to those interested in an easy-to-read, engaging historical nonfiction book focusing in on women’s history.  Particularly recommended to modern, women journalists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

May 29, 2014 2 comments

Workboots sit under a bright blue sky.Summary:
What do you call the approximately 1 out of 5 working class American kids who go to college and move into the white collar world?  Journalist Alfred Lubrano calls them Straddlers, and the world they live in Limbo.  Through interviewing experts on social mobility and class, therapists, and Straddlers themselves, Lubrano seeks to establish the unique challenges and triumphs of moving up the social ladder from blue to white in America.

Review:
I picked this up because I happen to be one of the Straddlers Lubrano is talking about, and I was curious to know both what about my experiences are common among all Straddlers and pieces of advice on navigating the interesting experience of being a Straddler.  The book brings to light the often overlooked issue of how changing classes impacts a person’s life, as well as real cultural differences among the blue-collar and white-collar classes in America.

Lubrano begins his book by defining blue and white collar.  A blue collar person can make more money than a white collar person (think of a successful plumber versus a struggling journalist).  Blue versus white collar isn’t about how much income a person generates, according to Lubrano.  What really makes the difference is 1) education level and 2) type of work.  The blue collar person may have an associate’s degree or a trade degree or certification.  The white collar person will have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.  The blue collar person generally works with their hands or in service industries.  The white collar person works in an office or on a computer.  Thus, what generally begins the change from blue to white collar is attending a four-year college.

The book next establishes the blue collar background the Straddler comes from, as well as establishing statistics on class mobility and class differences.  By establishing firmly the blue collar background the Straddler comes from and how that affects their thought patterns and approaches, Lubrano lays the groundwork for highlighting the unique struggles Straddlers go through in college and later at their white collar jobs and in their white collar surroundings.  The blue collar class elements Lubrano highlights include: being taught that working hard will get you what you want (the ideal of a meritocracy at all levels of society), distrust of the boss/upper-levels of management, intense loyalty to community and fellow workers, high value on obedience and conformity to community, patriotism, straight talking, and emotions being close to the surface and easily erupting.

The next section deals with the blue collar kid starting college.  Both blue collar families that push college and those that degrade it are discussed, as well as the reasons for both reactions by blue collar parents to college.  On the one hand, there are the parents who view college as a straight-shot meritocracy to a better job, better life, and better ability to live your dreams.  On the other hand, there are the parents who are afraid that they will lose standing in their own home if their child outsmarts or outshines them.  By and large, however, most blue collar parents fall in the former category.  Lubrano points out that blue collar parents don’t intimately know or understand the white collar world they are sending their children into, and thus unknowingly often give them bad information or false hopes.  To the blue collar parent, a college degree is a golden ticket, and so the blue collar child is pushed into a culture they are unprepared for.

Straddlers’ parents have such plans for their kids. With strong hopes but scant information, many push their progeny toward the vague realm of Something Better–the glorious middle class. Imbued with these dreams, Straddlers lurch awkwardly out of sheltering enclaves into unknown realms. On their sometimes troubled way, they become educated and awaken to class differences between the past and their would-be future. Priorities shift. Some values change, while some remain constant. Unlike many they meet in the new, white-collar world, these people are hybrids. That duality is their strength and their struggle, and will comfort and vex them throughout their days. (loc 611)

Next, the book tackles the blue collar / white collar culture clash that begins to occur when a blue collar person attends college and will continue throughout their life as a Straddler.  Lubrano does an eloquent job of addressing both how the Straddler struggles to understand the white collar world she now inhabits, as well as how the Straddler starts to change and no longer fits in among her family and blue collar people she grew up with.  The changes that often make a Straddler no longer fit in among her family include: language, leaving religion, and dietary choices.  College makes the blue collar kids change, and often their families are not expecting that.  Suddenly, the child speaks like a stranger, eats like a stranger, and no longer feels attached to the family religion. The culture clash between the working class college student and her new peers is perhaps a bit more obvious.  The monetary differences are clear immediately.  Peers often don’t understand the need to work or the high value of a dollar to their blue collar classmate.  More subtle and far-reaching than the different approaches to money, though, are the different approaches to life.  White collar kids are raised with self-esteem and feelings of entitlement that blue collar kids never knew existed.  They navigate campus with a sureness of belonging, and that surety will aid them throughout their careers.

The book next tackles how these class differences affect the Straddler’s career.  This is the most fascinating part of the book.  Most people probably expect that a blue collar kid going to college will experience some culture clashes and struggles with the family, but the idea that these struggles will continue past college is not obvious.  College is supposed to prep everyone for a career, but the fact is, oftentimes colleges leave the Straddler student floundering on their own. There are generally no classes on how to be white collar, you’re just supposed to know.  And it’s not always easy for the Straddler to just pick this up on their own.  Lubrano highlights the key areas in which the blue collar culture the Straddler was raised with clashes with the expectations of a white collar job and can hurt a career.

If you come from the working class, you haven’t got a clue how to conduct yourself when you first land in an office. You’re lost if you can’t navigate the landscape–if you follow blue-collar mores and speak your mind, directly challenging authority. Without tact and subtlety, without the ability to practice politics amongst the cubicles, an executive with a blue-collar background will not rise. (loc 2473)

Among the issues Lubrano highlights as frequently arising for Straddlers are a tendency to be lacking in tact, an innate disgust for and inability to handle the inauthenticity demanded by office politics, and a lack of understanding of the manner of dress expected in white collar jobs.  Additionally, blue collar homes often denigrate the boss or the man, demanding only loyalty to fellow workers.  White collar culture, on the other hand, demands loyalty to firm, not your coworkers, as well as an expectation that you will automatically desire to rise up the ladder and become the man.  Perhaps the most difficult skill for Straddlers to learn and appreciate is networking.  Blue collar homes teach you to leave work at work.  Family time is a sacred space.  White collar jobs expect extraneous socializing in the form of networking, additionally they expect the white collar workers’ whole family to participate in their career, when needed.  (Think of a networking dinner in the worker’s home).  This entire concept rubs the Straddler the wrong way.  Networking feels inauthentic and wrong, and the family space feels violated.  Additionally, the Straddler was raised believing hard work advances you, not who you know.  The idea that you advance farther by networking than by working hard can often sicken a Straddler.

I didn’t realize that doing a job well is no guarantee of advancement and opportunity. There are ways to get ahead that have nothing to do with hard work. But blue-collar people are taught that that’s a person’s only currency–you sell your labor and give the boss an honest eight hours….Along with blatant kissing up, networking and socializing with bosses and colleagues also are dirty words to some Straddlers. It all smacks of phoniness and is antithetical to their blue-collar backgrounds, which emphasize honesty in human relations–”real” relationships. (loc 2735)

The book next discusses Straddler’s romantic lives and experiences parenting their own white collar children.  Unless a Straddler dates another Straddler, they will end up dating someone who does not communicate the same way they do.  If they date a blue collar person, the same issues they have with their own family arise.  If they date a white collar (born and raised) person, then issues in communication similar to the ones they experience at work come up.  If the Straddler marries a blue collar person, that person will often feel threatened by their academic interests.  If the Straddler marries a white collar person, communication is often an issue.  White collar people are taught to manage their emotions and shut down when upset.  The Straddler was raised with emotions at the surface in a passionate manner.  This can freak out the white collar person, and in turn, the relative calm of the white collar partner can drive the Straddler crazy.

When it comes to kids, most Straddlers talk a lot about trying to keep their kids from having a sense of entitlement.  They want them to connect to their blue collar roots, to appreciate blue collar work, and to have blue collar values.  The Straddler wants their child to have to struggle, because they value the personal growth they themselves got out of it.

The book closes out with a discussion of what makes a successful Straddler.  Ideally, the Straddler will become bicultural.  Able to navigate both blue and white collar worlds, and appreciate the positive in both. Unashamed of where they came from and unashamed of where they ended up.

The more successful Straddlers–and by this I mean people who are comfortable with their lives–embrace their middle-class reality while honoring their blue-collar roots. Though they live in limbo, they choose to concentrate on the upside and what makes them unique. (loc 4175)

The book addresses a topic that badly needs to be addressed.  If one in five working class kids becomes a Straddler, that’s a huge sociological group that is often not discussed.  However, there are some weak points in the book.  Although Lubrano acknowledges that Straddlers can come from the city or rural areas, since he grew up in Brooklyn, he tends to focus in on those who come from the city.  He could have sought out more Straddlers to interview who grew up rural poor to get a firmer grasp on what their life experiences are like.  There are some subtle differences between city and rural blue collar.  Similarly, Lubrano mostly interviews people of the same generation as himself.  He conducts one series of interviews with three people from a younger generation, but primarily he interviews people from the same age-range.  Although it’s obvious these issues are consistent across generations, it would be a stronger book with multiple generation’s voices.  Similarly, the book came out in 2005, and an updated edition would be nice.

Overall, this is an engaging read that addresses the sociological issue of moving from blue collar to white collar class.  Interviews with both Straddlers and experts brighten and enlighten the text, although the book would benefit from a bit more variety in the Straddlers interviewed.  Recommended to anyone who is a Straddler themselves, as well as those who may educate or work with Straddlers and those with an interest in class differences.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

April 16, 2014 2 comments

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain rangeSummary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.

Review:
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink.  In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain.  I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review).  When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.

Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts.  Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen.  Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals.  The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in.  The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones.  The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes.  They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies.  Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction.  Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas.  And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.

There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable.  Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god.  When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in.  Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members.  He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of  the People’s Temple.  He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it.  He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it.  The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs.  Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave.  And many wanted to.  Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide.  Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison.  Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid.  It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.

Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction.  Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment.  A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over.  Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Emerald Diamond: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime by Charley Rosen

March 26, 2014 Leave a comment

A baseball with green lacings is the backdrop to the book title.Summary:
Did you know baseball has been entwined with Irish-Americans from the very beginning of the sport?  Rosen goes through the history of baseball, focusing in on how Irish-American players, managers, and owners impacted the game.

Review:
I picked this up from my pile of older review copies to read in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.  I’m part Irish myself and was a US History major in undergrad, so the concept of the book definitely appealed to me.  The book addresses the interesting topic of Irish-Americans in baseball but unfortunately presents the history in an only sometimes interesting way and utilizes sloppy research.

The book starts in the 1800s and works its way up through time, ending many chapters with a modern day interview to reflect upon the ideas presented in the chapter.  The earliest chapters are the most interesting.  They take the events and use them to tell the story of how Irish-Americans broke into baseball partly because many careers were closed off to them due to anti-Irish discrimination in America (No Irish Need Apply).  Originally, the game was much less regulated, and the Irish-American players brought with them a willingness to be sly and rough that added an element of excitement to the game that brought out more viewers.  Reading about how the rules slowly changed and how Irish-Americans impacted those changes was definitely fascinating.  It was also disturbing to discover how many players in the early years had serious addiction problems, not to mention the presence of multiple suicides.  Unfortunately, the opportunity to analyze this phenomenon and discuss it in depth is passed by, as is most true historical analysis.

Starting in the early 20th century, the formatting of the book changes so that instead of telling a story, the heading of a year is given and bullet-points of events for that year are listed.  Some of these bullet-points break out to be actual stories, instead of just pure listing of facts, and that is what kept me reading.  But mostly about half the book is just lists of baseball facts.  It reminded me of reading Chronicles in the Bible (so-and-so begat so-and-so).  There are some interesting tidbits in there, but they are few and far between.

I was truly appalled when I flipped back to check the references in the back that almost all of them are secondary sources, and a significant number are Wikipedia.  It’s one thing to start your research at Wikipedia to familiarize yourself with the topic and then broaden out to more scholarly work and primary sources.  It’s another thing entirely to publish an entire book that basically just sums up Wikipedia. A work of historic nonfiction should seek out as many primary sources as possible, read secondary analyses, and provide analysis both of the primary and secondary sources.  What Rosen has done is mostly to regurgitate what Wikipedia and other secondary sources have already said.  The exception to this is the modern day interviews Rosen conducted, but they make up a small portion of the book. Perhaps 15%.  If the book had consisted of interviews with modern Irish-American players and descendants of Irish-American players and managers, complete with analysis and investigation using primary and secondary materials, that would have been a fantastic book.  Instead we get a relisting of information already gathered (and better sourced) in secondary sources spiced up with a few interviews.  If I had bought this book, I would have returned it.

Overall, there are some interesting tidbits about how Irish-Americans impacted the game of baseball.  Unfortunately, large parts of the book are lists of facts, with no analysis or storytelling,  Additionally, Rosen relied primarily on secondary source materials, mostly Wikipedia, to research his book.  The reader could get similar information from Wikipedia themself and have the ability to click through to the source materials.  I would suggest doing that over buying this book.  For those seeking a book on the topic, I recommend The Irish in Baseball: An Early History by David L. Fleitz, a sports historian who clearly consulted primary and secondary sources in his writing.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Print copy from publisher in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: The Hornet’s Sting: The Amazing Untold Story Of Second World War Spy Thomas Sneum by Mark Ryan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 20, 2014 2 comments

Image of a biplane, a swastika, and a man with a gun. The book's title and author's name are on this image.Summary:
Thomas Sneum was a Danish Allied spy during World War II who was periodically suspected of being a double agent.  Partially due to this suspicion and partially due to infighting between the two British spy agencies (SIS and SOE), he never got the attention or respect he deserved.  Mark Ryan, the author, found out about him and set out to get to know him.  Both personally and through research.  Here he tells the true story of Tommy Sneum and sets the record straight once and for all.

Review:
I picked this book up during a kindle sale because I’m a big WWII buff and who doesn’t love real life spy stories?  I thought it was a sure bet, but apparently even a true life spy story can be written in a dull manner.

It’s impossible to read the book without learning a lot.  For instance, I had no idea that Britain had two different spy agencies that were battling each other for control of spying missions.  This infighting between the SIS and the SOE led to lack of communication and lack of a solid spy front with one, unified plan.  Similarly, I didn’t know it was common practice to take people who had escaped from behind Nazi lines, train them as spies, then re-drop them back in their home countries.  I always thought the resistance movement just built up from the inside and then they contacted the Allies on the outside with information.  How much more complex it was is really interesting.  I also loved learning more about those from occupied countries who escaped and fought in other militaries against the Nazis.  In spite of learning all of these new to me facts about WWII spying, the book manages to be dull.  Ryan tends to wander off on side diatribes about the intricacies of red tape and paperwork instead of focusing in on the more action-oriented, interesting bits of the spying.  He also spends a lot of time giving the full name of every single person even vaguely connected with Tommy and the spying, even if they really have no impact on the story.  The book could really have used a bit more streamlining and focus to keep the energy up.  Just because it’s nonfiction doesn’t mean it can, or should, meander.

Tommy Sneum is hard to root for.  He’s not a likable guy.  He abandons his wife and infant daughter to go be a spy.  That could definitely be seen as valiant, however, he expresses consistent distate for his wife and a lack of concern or care for even knowing his daughter.  He certainly comes across in the book as a guy just after adventure, not so much a man looking to protect his country or his family.  Similarly, Tommy express arrogance when it comes to women, claiming that they essentially would go sleep with him at the drop of a hat or a snap of his fingers.  He does not come across as seeing women as people but rather as recreational objects.  One story that really demonstrates this is he tells the author that he had a threesome once, and he was upset that the women dared to pay attention to each other at all, rather than 100% to him.  Sex is supposed to be about people giving to each other, not about one person being worshiped.  His general attitude towards women gave me a squicky feeling throughout the book.  Of course, most people are not all bad or good.  Tommy is no exception.  He expresses a real openness toward a male colleague who was known to be bi.  He refuses to view all Germans as evil monsters and insists, to those high up in the British resistance no less, that most Germans are just caught up in Hitler’s war machine.  Of course, these even-handed views are almost universally held of men.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ryan’s investigation into the accusations that Sneum was a double-agent.  This part of the book isn’t really played up in the blurb, which I think is unfortunate.  Ryan did a lot of investigative work and lays out all the details that he believes clears Sneum’s name.  Seeing how Sneum and his methods were misunderstood by the British and also how having two different spy agencies working led to misunderstandings was truly fascinating, and I’m glad Ryan took the time to work at finding the truth.

Overall, this is a rather slow-paced work of historic nonfiction that focuses in on the red tape and organizational aspects of spying more than exciting adventures.  It does good work in determining that Sneum was not a double agent in WWII.  Sneum’s womanizing can be a bit tedious at times, although his even-handed perspective on the German people is good to see.  Recommended to those interested in the organizational aspects of spying in WWII, including very minute details.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: Apparently this book is no longer available on the kindle.

Book Review: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

January 14, 2014 4 comments

cover_giftsimperfectionSummary:
Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, is a social work research professor.  She’s spent years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.  In this book, she presents her research on what she calls “Wholehearted living,” a way of living shared by the most content people she has interviewed in her years of research.  Dr. Brown argues that the key to a happy, fulfilled life is to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.  The book also offers 10 guideposts on how to fully achieve Wholehearted living.

Review:
Dr. Brown was a guest speaker on the only podcast I listen to (On Being with Krista Tippett).  Her episode where she discussed the power of vulnerability struck such a chord with me that I sought out one of her books to read.  This was the first one I could get my hands on.  Although at first the text seems simplistic, particularly compared to the podcast I listened to, with time the overarching picture Dr. Brown is painting becomes clear, and it truly is inspirational.

The guideposts each consist of one thing to cultivate and one thing to let go of.  Each guidepost ends with suggestions for working on both.  For instance, guidepost two is cultivate self-compassion and let go of perfectionism.  The chapter ends with a link to an online quiz to see which areas of self-compassion you need more work on.  I like that Dr. Brown gives the reader both something to stop doing and something to replace it with.  It’s easy to say, “Don’t do this,” but it’s much harder to give someone something positive to replace it with.  Some of the guideposts felt more relevant than others, but that will definitely be a personal thing for each reader.  For instance, I didn’t really need someone to tell me to get creative instead of comparing myself to others, but I did need to hear about cultivating calm and stillness and letting go of anxiety.  How useful you will find the book will probably be related to how many guideposts are applicable to your own life.  Skim through the table of contents and see how the different guideposts resonate with you.

Dr. Brown’s advice is based on scientific research, but she also brings a real person element to her book.  She is very honest with the reader about her own vulnerabilities as a person and as a woman and which guideposts she struggles the most with herself.  Some of her stories may seem a bit silly at first to the reader, particularly since Dr. Brown’s life seems to be a relatively easy one, but ultimately they lend a sense of connection and realness to the book that allows the reader to ponder the information at a deeper level.

The issues she addresses are quite universal, including: the desire to fit in, shame, authenticity, perfectionism, resilience, hope, addiction, and power.  At first what she states may seem obvious or too simple, but the reader will find themselves returning to these simple sentences later on at key moments and saying, “Huh, it’s not as obvious or as simple as I thought at first.”  Here are just a few examples:

Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. (page 26)

Healthy striving is self-focused–How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused–What will they think? (page 5)

I define calm as creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity. (page 106)

When we value being cool and in control over granting ourselves the freedom to unleash the passionate, goofy, heartfelt, and soulful expressions of who we are, we betray ourselves. When we consistently betray ourselves, we can expect to do the same to the people we love. (page 123)

Although the book can at first seem obvious and Dr. Brown’s personal examples overly simple, this book actually takes a complex topic and clearly explains it at a personable level, complete with suggested methods to implement the changes Dr. Brown suggests.  This book presents the scientifically-researched fact that a happy, fulfilled life comes from living authentically and being kinder to yourself.  Recommended to anyone feeling frazzled, stressed, or generally dissatisfied with their life.  Dr. Brown’s book shows another, simpler way to be.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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2013′s 5 Star Reads!

January 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoyed assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2013!

Image of a bicycle with a bag of money on its back is under the title of the book in red.The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future
By: Chris Guillebeau
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Crown Business
Genre: Nonfiction Lifestyle
Themes: independence, success, small businesses
Summary:
Guillebeau investigated what makes microbusinesses (small businesses typically run by one person) successful by conducting a multiyear study interviewing more than 100 successful microbusiness entrepreneurs.  Here he presents his findings on what makes for a successful microbusiness and offers advice on how you can become a successful microbusiness entrepreneur too.
Current Thoughts:
I refer to things I learned in this book at least once a week.  Guillebeau offers practical advice for the aspiring small business owner on everything from choosing an idea that will work to setting the right price to marketing.  The things I’ve been able to try from the book so far have worked.  This book shows what happens when a nonfiction book bases its advice on solid research.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.The Curse of the Wendigo (The Monstrumologist, #2)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Horror, YA
Themes: love lost, the nature of good and evil
Summary:
Will Henry, 12 year old orphan and assistant to renowned Monstrumologist, Pellinore Warthrop, is shocked to find a refined woman on Warthrop’s doorstep.  She is the wife of Warthrop’s best friend who has now gone missing in rural Canada while looking for the elusive wendigo (aka werewolf).  Warthrop insists that there is no such thing as a wendigo, but he agrees to go looking for his missing friend anyway, even if he believes his mission was ridiculous and an affront to monstrumology’s reputation.
Current Thoughts:
What I remember when I think about this book is the beautiful language and the dual setting of the horror.  Setting the book both in rural Canada and urban New York is part of what made it feel so unique to me.  A horror that travels instead of being trapped in one setting isn’t seen as often.  The book is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. A rare find.

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Man Plus
By: Frederik Pohl
Publication Date: 1976
Publisher: Orb Books
Genre: Scifi
Themes: transhumanism, artificial intelligence
Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?
Current Thoughts:
This has a scifi plot that both explores an issue I’m interested in (transhumanism) and managed to surprise me at the end.  It’s a short book that makes you think and has compelling three-dimensional characters.  I’ll definitely be keeping this one and seeking out more of Pohl’s writing.

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology, and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today
By: Kate Bornstein
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Memoir, GLBTQ
Themes:  religious abuse, trans rights, gender, Borderline Personality Disorder
Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
Current Thoughts:
This memoir is engaging right from the title and stunning in the level of honesty Bornstein displays.  Bornstein eloquently presents the reality of being trans, entering a leaving an abusive religion, and the complexities of gender.  An incredibly readable memoir that stays with you.

Woman standing in front of electrical storm.Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid, #3)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: the grayness of good versus evil
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, has a lot on her hands between dating her human author boyfriend, Seth, (and not sleeping with him to protect his life energy), adjusting to her new managerial position at the bookstore, and her usual succubus requirement of stealing good men’s life energy by sleeping with them.  So the last thing she needs is another new assignment from hell, but that’s what she’s getting.  Seattle is getting a second succubus, a newbie she has to mentor.  When she starts having dreams about having a normal, human life and waking up with her energy drained, it all turns into almost too much for one succubus to handle.
Current Thoughts:
This series glows in my mind as a favorite that I will return to again and again.  This book is where I truly began to fall in love with it.  The third entry shows that urban fantasy can be more than monster of the week.  It does what genre does best.  Ponder real life questions in an enjoyable wrapping.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid, #6)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: soul mates, forgiveness, personal growth
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, is incredibly happy to be back together with her previously ex boyfriend, Seth Mortensen.  But getting back together with him came at the price of hurting his once-fiancee and having to leave her previously loved position managing the bookstore.  It’s all worth it to be with Seth, though.  But then a transfer notice comes in, sending her to her dream job in Las Vegas.  It’d be a dream come true, except Seth can’t come with her because his sister-in-law has cancer.  Georgina starts to wonder just why so many elements seem to keep coming together to try to drive her and Seth apart.
Current Thoughts:
This an amazing series finale that reveals so many aspects of the overarching plot that I wanted to go back and re-read the whole series immediately just to look for more of the overarching plot that I was oblivious to the first time around.  It’s a wrap-up that is satisfying without making everything too perfect for the characters.  It has a lot to say about love and redemption. And it made me cry.

Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid, #5)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: facing your past
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, cannot believe she has been roped into helping plan her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.  It’s enough to make anyone depressed.  But she can’t afford to be depressed, because every time she starts to feel down, a mysterious force tries to lure her away to what must be a dangerous place.  Georgina is fed up with all of these mysterious attacks on Seattle.  It just doesn’t make sense.  What is making them target Seattle? And seem to be maybe targeting her?
Current Thoughts:
The penultimate book in this series isn’t afraid to go dark places with tough questions.  It also addresses the issue in urban fantasy that a lot of people joke about: gee that’s sure a lot happening in this one town!  Mead addresses this in a tongue-in-cheek manner that also ties into the overall plot.  I was amazed at how well this series incorporates both all the things that make urban fantasy fun (demons! sex! supernatural battles!) and an overarching plot that tugs at the heart strings and makes some of the bizarre things that happen make sense.

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds. The book's title and author are printed on the background.The Time Machine
By: H. G. Wells
Publication Date: 1895
Publisher: New American Library
Genre: Scifi, Classic
Themes: dystopia, time travel, evolution, class divides
Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
Current Thoughts:
I’m so glad I added this scifi classic to my list of books I’ve read.  I of course had heard of the general idea of the Morlocks and the Eloi, but reading about them for myself, I was easily able to see how this became a classic.  It kept me on the edge of my seat, concerned for the scientist’s safety, even while exploring issues of inequitable class divides and pondering the future direction of the evolution of the human race.

A green and white book cover with an image of a woman and her reflection.Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
By: Karyl McBride
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction Psych, Nonfiction Relationships
Themes: overcoming adversity, mother/daughter relationships, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, abuse
Summary:
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD.  Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD.  The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives.  The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like.  The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults.  The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism.  Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.
Current Thoughts:
This is one of the best books I’ve read for adult survivors of abusive childhoods.  It works because it focuses narrowly on one type of relationship and one type of dysfunctional, abusive childhood to be overcome.  McBride explains what happened to the adult survivor when they were a child, how that affects them now, and how to overcome it.  She does this while neither excusing nor demonizing the mother’s behavior.  A great book for anyone with an interest in how mothers with NPD affect their daughters.

Book Review: Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride

November 14, 2013 Leave a comment

A green and white book cover with an image of a woman and her reflection.Summary:
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD.  Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD.  The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives.  The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like.  The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults.  The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism.  Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.

Review:
It’s not easy to find a book addressing healing from abuse that manages to walk the fine line of understanding for all involved and absolute condemnation of the abusive actions and that simultaneously encourages agency and healing without making the survivor become stuck in a victim’s mentality.  Dr. McBride strikes this balance eloquently.

The three sections of the book work perfectly for guiding the reader through understanding precisely what happened in her childhood, how it impacts her adulthood, and how to regain agency of herself and her life.  NPD is not a mental illness that is well-understood or recognized.  The first section thus must explain NPD and how NPD leads to abusive mothering without demonizing the mother suffering from NPD.  It is incredibly difficult not to demonize people with NPD.  People with NPD tend to be self-centered, manipulative, and resistant to treatment.  McBride manages to simultaneously describe the person with NPD in a sympathetic light and condemn their behavior.  This section also serves to provide an aha moment for the reader.  It will immediately be clear if your mother has/had NPD or not, and if she does/did, it will shine a light on the daughter’s childhood, proving she is not crazy or ungrateful.  Some of the signs of a mother with NPD include: the mother demanding praise for everything she’s ever done for the daughter, a lack of compassion or empathy for the daughter, approval for who the mother wants the daughter to be instead of who she is, the mother perceives of the daughter as a threat, the mother is jealous of the daughter for various reasons, the mother is overly critical or judgmental, the mother uses the daughter as a scapegoat for her bad feelings, the mother treats the daughter like a friend, no boundaries or privacy, the mother involves the daughter prematurely in the adult world, and more.

This section also explains why the book is only about daughters of mothers with NPD and not for her sons as well.

A mother, however, is her daughter’s primary role model for developing as an individual, lover, wife, mother, and friend, and aspects of maternal narcissism tend to damage daughters in particularly insidious ways. Because the mother-daughter dynamic is distinctive, the daughter of a narcissistic mother faces unique struggles that her brothers don’t share….A narcissistic mother sees her daughter, more than her son, as a reflection and extension of herself rather than as a separate person with her own identity. She puts pressure on her daughter to act and react to the world and her surroundings in the exact manner that Mom would, rather than in a way that feels right for the daughter. (6-7)

The next section looks at what impact being raised by a mother with NPD has on the daughter’s adult life.  McBride factually explains where some of the daughter’s less healthy behaviors and thought processes may come from without falling into the trap many childhood healing books fall into of repeatedly directing negative energy toward the parent.  Some of the issues that may be present in an adult daughter raised by a mother with NPD include: high-achieving or self-sabotaging or waffling between the two, difficulty understanding and processing feelings, inappropriate love relationships that are dependent or codependent or giving up on relationships entirely, fear of becoming a mother herself, unconsciously mimicking her mother’s parenting with her own children or doing the exact opposite of what her mother did.

The final section is all about the daughter healing, overcoming, and taking agency for herself.  McBride encourages therapy, but also offers at-home tips and exercises for those who cannot afford it.  An example of one of these is the “internal mother” exercise.  This exercise involves many steps, but it essentially seeks to replace the internal negative messages the daughter has from her own mother with more positive messages that are the type the daughter wanted from her real mother.  The daughter grieves the mother she never got to have and learns to parent herself.  Much of the work in this section involves grieving the mother and childhood the daughter never got to have, accepting it for what it is, giving herself the encouragement and mothering she needs, learning to set boundaries, and the daughter coming to be in charge of her own life.  The exercises are not simple and may seem a bit overwhelming to the reader at first, but they do serve to mimic the real therapy process, encouraging introspection, journaling, grieving, and behavioral changes.

One thing I really appreciate about McBride’s approach is how she handles the adult relationship between daughter and mother.  She 100% encourages the daughter to make the choice that is right for her own emotional health and that simultaneously does not expect miracles from her mother.  Since most people with NPD don’t receive successful treatment, McBride carefully admonishes the daughter to base her decision based on her mother’s proven behavior.  She encourages setting clear boundaries, and individuating oneself from mother.  But she also acknowledges that having a relationship at all with a mother with severe NPD might not be possible.

We have to acknowledge that a narcissistic mother may be too toxic to be around. In many situations, daughters have to make the choice to disconnect completely from their mothers because the toxicity damages their emotional well-being. While others around you may not understand it, this is a decision that you get to make for your own mental health. (184)

Refusing to give one-size-fits-all advice on the relationship between a narcissistic mother and her adult daughter is just one example of the many positives of this book.  McBride offers insight, advice, and isn’t afraid to say what might be painful to hear.  She has done an excellent job putting the therapy process into book format, as much as possible.

Overall, this book tackles an incredibly difficult topic in an even-handed, clear manner.  Its focus on just daughters of mothers with NPD allows Dr. McBride to give targeted examples and advice to the reader.  It never excuses the mother’s behavior, firmly condemning it, but still exhibits compassion for the mother suffering from NPD.  Any woman who thinks she may have been raised by a woman with NPD should read this book and see if any of it rings true for her.  Additionally recommended to anyone interested in how NPD impacts parenting and the next generation.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future by Chris Guillebeau

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of a bicycle with a bag of money on its back is under the title of the book in red.Summary:
Guillebeau investigated what makes microbusinesses (small businesses typically run by one person) successful by conducting a multiyear study interviewing more than 100 successful microbusiness entrepreneurs.  Here he presents his findings on what makes for a successful microbusiness and offers advice on how you can become a successful microbusiness entrepreneur too.

Review:
I found this book in a list of top books for small businesses published in 2012.  The title totally intrigued me, since starting up a business with very little funds is quite appealing.  I’m so glad I picked it up.  This is an awesome small business book.  It’s written for entrepreneurs, not MBAs, and it’s easy to understand, concise, engaging, and memorable.  Perhaps most importantly, the few tips and tricks I’ve tried out so far have actually worked.

The book is clearly organized with no-nonsense, easy-to-understand chapter titles like “Hustling: The Gentle Art of Self-Promotion” accompanied by memorable, informative illustrations.  This organization extends to the content of the chapters.  When possible, Guillebeau provides subcategories and lists, putting the information into smaller, more digestible chunks.  His writing also captures this no-nonsense, straight-forward style.

Focus relentlessly on the point of convergence between what you love to do and what other people are willing to pay for. (loc 2406)

It’s pretty near impossible to misunderstand any of the points he makes.  The chapters also provide graphs, illustrations, references, and guides to further aid you in following the steps laid out.

In spite of laying out steps and guidelines, Guillebeau successfully avoids promoting an unbelievable “one-size fits all” miracle model.  He talks about what worked and didn’t work for the successful entrepreneurs he interviewed, but he also points out repeatedly that it’s important that the reader understand herself and her strengths and weaknesses and always remember she knows her potential business and personality the best.

People who know less about the business than me do not get to make decisions about it. (loc 3296)

This honesty that one-size does not fit all and the clarity with which Guillebeau presents his research grants the book a trustworthy, believable vibe.  It instills faith in the reader and brings out her passion for her own ideas.  Plus, the fact that this is based on real research and not just Guilleabeau’s own experiences means the tricks and tips are more likely to work.  Nothing works perfectly every time, and the market is an unpredictable place, but having this research as a guide can help the reader avoid at least some of the hiccups, bumps, and pitfalls in starting and running a microbusiness.

Overall this is a well-organized, honest book clearly written for the entrepreneur, not an MBA.  It is based on market research, not exclusively the author’s own experiences, and offers tips and advice, not a one-size fits all model.  Anyone interested in starting their own small business or in what makes small businesses succeed should definitely give this book a read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Stoning of Soraya M.: A Story of Injustice in Iran by Freidoune Sahebjam (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 22, 2013 2 comments

Picture of a woman in a niqab.  The title of the book and author's name are in gold and black banners across the top and bottom.

Summary:
Sahebjam, a French-Iranian journalist, was traveling through Iran in the 1980s when he had to stop in a small village.  An elderly woman, Zahra, asked him for tea so she could tell him the story of what happened to her niece, Soraya, mere weeks before.  Sahebjam grants narrative to her tale to get the story of injustice out.

Soraya was a typical rural Iranian woman.  Married to a villager at a young age.  Her husband, Ghorban-Ali, became less and less invested in his family and more and more likely to beat them.  He also became increasingly interested in young women in the city.  When a criminal posing as a mullah comes to town, Ghorban-Ali sees the perfect opportunity to be rid of his wife without any costs of divorce.  He, the mullah, and an easily swayed widower friend corroborate to falsely accuse Soraya of adultery and sentence her to death by stoning.

Review:
Things can easily go awry when the powers of justice are held in the hands of a select few.  A lot rests on whether or not those few are good people.  This book tells that tale, and it tells it movingly, regardless of whether or not all the facts of the story are precisely correct.  The biggest facts are accurate, and that is what matters.

Sahebjam is a French-Iranian journalist.  He thus has both the perspective of insider and outsider, which is the ideal one for a story like this.  He understands the people and the village but he also knows how to present and explain things to the non-Iranian reader.  Sahebjam clearly and honestly states from the beginning that he got this tale from one eyewitness.  Some might argue that this story thus isn’t researched well enough or thoroughly vetted.  It is indeed one eyewitness account passed through an author (and for English speakers, a translator).  But the core of the injustice is verifiable: the handling of adultery in Islam.  Combine this with religion and state being one and the same, and it’s easy to see how if this story didn’t indeed already happen how it could easily come to be.

The first half of the book introduces us to Sahebjam, Zahra (the aunt), and Soraya, as well as the organization of the small town and the adultery laws as followed by fundamentalist Islam.  Sahebjam does a good job introducing all the people and explaining the context of the injustice without overwhelming the reader with info dumping.

Essentially, in Islam, when it comes to adultery, the woman has to do all the proving.

When a man accuses his wife [of adultery], she has to prove her innocence [in Islam]. This is the law. On the other hand, if a woman makes an accusation against her husband, she has to produce proof. (location 1079)

If the woman is wealthy, she can pay off the mullah (think of it as paying a penance in Catholicism).  But:

In most cases the woman [accused of adultery in Iran] is poor—which means she is a virtual slave to her husband. She has no rights, except for the meager right to remain silent. All the husband needs to win his case of infidelity is two eyewitnesses, who are generally friends and accomplices. As for the accused woman, she has to prove her innocence and that is impossible: no one will come to her aid; no one will bear witness on her behalf. (location 129)

Regardless of whether or not Soraya was a real person (and I do believe she was), these are problematic laws that leave the door wide open for abuse by a few corrupt people.  This book demonstrates that danger eloquently.

Sahebjam clearly made a choice to make the tale flow better by giving it some narrative qualities.  He inserts dialogue he clearly wasn’t there to hear, and he even talks about what was going on inside people’s heads.  I didn’t like that he did the latter, especially.  I understand dialogue can help make a nonfiction book flow a bit, and I’m ok with that.  But claiming to know what was going on inside people’s minds turned me off the narrative a bit.  It leaves the door open for criticism of a story that needs to be taken seriously, and I wish he had made other narrative choices.

At first, it is easy to be irritated by Soraya’s choice to remain silent when accused.  She gives up so quickly, one wonder why she never advocates for herself.  But in retrospect, it’s a clear, yet subtle, depiction of what can happen to a victim of abuse over time.  Eventually their spirit is just beaten out of them.  Soraya demonstrates what happens when abused people are left to deal with the abuse and abuser on their own.

Overall, this book highlights the inequality innate is Muslim adultery laws, as well as the dangers of leaving justice to the hands of a few.  The narrative structure doesn’t precisely suit a nonfiction account of an event, but the bones at the core of the injustice are still verifiably true.  Readers who prefer a dry, precise nonfiction might not be able to look past the narrative structure.  Those who can will find a moving tale of how easy it is for injustice to take over a community.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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