Sunday, September 04, 2016

All About August Reading



I finished seven books in August! Clearly, the heat and humidity didn't slow me down at all.

As you can see, my Hamilton obsession hasn't abated one iota.

Here's how the deal went down:

1. Kick: The True Story of JFK's Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth - Paula Byrne. (biography) With every book I read about the Kennedy siblings, I despise Joe and Rose Kennedy even more. Where they were utter monsters in the case of Rosemary, in Kick's (Kathleen's) case, they were simply overbearing, expecting their adult children to toe their line, especially where religion was concerned. Paula Byrne provides a sympathetic look at a vital, independent young woman who lost her life in a plane crash at 28 amidst scandal. Sometimes the book is a little fangirlish and gossipy and repeated phrases or ideas following a similar theme can be grating, but these are nitpicks. For those who are fascinated by the Kennedy mystique, this lacks the pathos and drama of Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, but it's worth a look at a life lived with blazing intensity.

2. A Family Matter - Will Eisner. (graphic novel) Written and illustrated by the man who coined the term "graphic novel", this is the uncomfortable tale of an elderly patriarch who is dying, and his children who are greedy, angry and damaged in varying degrees. Their complicated lives are sketched minimally but effectively as they gather to make decisions about the old man.

3. Dead Presidents - Brady Carlson. (nonfiction) A fun, informative and educational look at the afterlife of United States presidents. Carlson covers such topics as memorials that are both large and small; how presidents' reputations change over time (Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon are prime examples); and all sort s of delectable trivia tidbits about each president. Weirdest thing: the LBJ robot! Something interesting: Eisenhower was the last president to have his body taken back to his home by train. Since he was the president who championed and funded the interstate highway system, it would have been much more fitting if he had gone to his final resting place in that manner, but perhaps that is impractical. Carlson's quirky writing and enthusiastic research made for a quick, entertaining read. Fans of A.J. Jacobs and Bill Bryson will enjoy Dead Presidents.

4. Idiot Brain - Dean Burnett. (nonfiction) Welsh neuroscientist Burnett explores what makes our brains tick. Why do our brains understand the right and proper ways to behave and then we turn around and undermine our own efforts? Short answer: the right/proper section of our brain is fairly new and the older part, "idiot brain" "reptile brain" is going with what has worked for survival for thousands of years, thank you very much. Some of the book seems dense with information, but Burnett keeps it light with jokes and humorous examples. Although I enjoyed Idiot Brain, a book I read late last year, Focus, by Daniel Goleman, covers a lot of the same ground, and is my preferred read on the subject. I don't know if that's the newer or older part of my brain popping off. Sorry!

5. The Emigrants - Johan Bojer. (novel) This 1920s Norwegian novel follows the fortunes of a small group of people from a small village in Norway who are down on their luck and decide in the early 1880s to follow a friend who emigrated several years before, to America. The strongest, starkest part of the novel is their arrival and first years on the bleak Dakota prairie, homesteading in sod houses and pitting themselves against nature and isolation. Also effective is Bojer's depiction of feeling caught between two worlds. I really liked this book and wish that I could read a more modern translation. The copy I read was translated in 1925 by someone who was obviously English and hung out with the likes of Bertie Wooster.

6. Burr - Gore Vidal. (novel) I read Burr back in 2012 when my long-lost, lamented book group, Cracked Spinez, decided one month to feature works by Gore Vidal. As I suspected, I enjoyed Burr even more this time, since I am all a-wash in Hamiltonia.  Burr catches up with its title character in old age, an old scoundrel who has just gone fortune-hunting and married a wealthy widow. Although nearing 80, he still has dreams of his own empire, possibly in Texas. Meanwhile, he dictates his memoirs to a young law student/reporter, Charlie Schuyler, who is intent on digging up dirt about Burr's possible relation to presidential hopeful Martin Van Buren. With mordant wit, Burr seems to reveal all, but remains a charming, maddening enigma. I really love this book, and I miss the hell out of Gore Vidal.

7. My Theodosia - Anya Seton. (novel) More evidence of my Hamilton mania. Blame this one on Goodreads. They saw that I was reading Burr and so kindly and considerately recommended My Theodosia to me. Thanks, guys. Theodosia was the only child of Aaron Burr and Seton's 1941 novel details their devoted and intense relationship.  An excellent blend of "historical" (wonderful, thorough research!) and "novel" (a teenaged flirtation with Washington Irving? A passionate affair of the heart with Merriweather Lewis? Eliza Hamilton referring to Alexander as "Sandy"? Hmm.). There are a couple of Easter eggs in My Theodosia: Hamilton has a thought that could possibly be a clue about what led to their fateful meeting in New Jersey; and Seton makes a glancing reference to the woman Burr would end up marrying late in life for her fortune.  Good stuff; I ate this book up like potato chips. Now the bad: My Theodosia was Seton's first novel, and she had some rookie problems with pacing, characterization and other pesky novel-writing things. At one point, she had a POV switch that nearly gave me whiplash. (No, that's not so bad, yes you're right.) Here's what's really bad: Even though I enjoyed this book, I really can't recommend it because there are some severe problems with racism. Political incorrectness doesn't even begin to cover it. Although I argued to myself that the racist passages in question could be an accurate depiction of how Theodosia, Aaron and other characters talked and thought in the late 18th and early 19th century, Seton went way over the top and there was a lot of gratuitous nastiness that was permissible in the publishing world in 1941. If I could unread some of those passages, I would. Not enough Visine in the world. I ended up not rating the book on Goodreads because of this issue. I lovehate and hatelove My Theodosia, and hesitate to read any of Anya Seton's other work. 

4 comments:

Sam Sattler said...

Congrats on an interesting and varied month of reading. Gore Vidal was almost as good a real-life character as the fictional characters he wrote about so well. I still find him to be a fascinating man.

I'm curious about graphic novels. I've only read a couple of them and didn't find myself totally invested in either of the plots by the time I finished them. Do you find them to be as satisfying as novels? Maybe I haven't found the right graphic novels yet...just wondering.

Susan Bybee said...

Sam,
I've only read a few graphic novels that packed the emotional punch of an actual novel: Maus, Fun Home, Pyongyang, Mail Order Bride, Persepolis are a few that come to mind. Oh, and Harvey Pekar's work.

Unruly Reader said...

Oh my gosh -- you rocked August! I so want to read Dead Presidents, that I'm almost (almost!) wanting to add it to the mix Right Now.

I've never read Gore Vidal before, and now you've got me all intrigued there, too...

Susan Bybee said...

Unruly, you won't be sorry about either one. Both very much your cup of tea.