Review 1534: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson started out writing travel books that were notable for his humor and the many factiods and interesting stories he told about the places he visited. I imagine him with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything.

More recently, he has tackled other subjects, and his newest book is about the human body. In this book, he approaches the body system by system to explain what it does and how miraculous it is. As usual, he relates stories about the various people who made discoveries about the body and includes lots of factoids.

This book is entertaining enough, but it wasn’t the book for me. I have a personal black hole when it comes to subjects such as health and medicine (also religion). Although I was mildly interested in it and found lots of passages to read to my husband (who is interested in that kind of thing, although not religion), I decided not to finish it. I think it is a good book, though, for those who are more interested in the topic or like lots of interesting facts.

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Review 1507: Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill is Ronan Farrow’s book detailing the NBC News investigation into claims of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape by Harvey Weinstein against numerous female actors and employees. This investigation resulted in Farrow’s New Yorker article that precipitated the Me Too movement. The book also details the obstruction of Farrow’s efforts to pursue the investigation by his own management at NBC, which turned out to have its own culture of sexual abuse and harassment and a system of cover-ups for this behavior.

Less well known is his story of surveillance by the Weinstein organization and of threats against witnesses and potential witnesses. Interestingly enough, he also mentions instances of similar claims against Donald Trump before his election, which, along with those against Weinstein were “caught and killed” by the National Enquirer and its affiliates.

Farrow is very open about his own not very helpful responses to his sister Dylan’s claims against their father, Woody Allen, and about his feelings of being spied upon as well as a certain amount of naiveté when NBC first began obstructing his investigations. This is an interesting account of a landmark moment in recent history.

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Review 1491: Grant

Ron Chernow has become one of my three favorite biographers, along with Doris Kearns Goodwin for political figures and Claire Tomalin for literary ones. Although both Grant and Alexander Hamilton are of a length that could seem forbidding to some readers, they are unfailingly readable and interesting.

Chernow’s main thrust is that Grant has long been misrepresented and his legacy misunderstood. I can testify to this by my personal experience in school, where he was characterized in exactly the terms spelled out in this book. We were told that he was a drunk whose presidency was riddled with corruption. His contribution to the Civil War was virtually ignored.

Poor Grant! Chernow sets us all straight. Yes, Grant had a problem with drink. He, in fact, got drunk after a small amount of liquor. This was a problem he fought all his adult life and conquered during his presidency. After he was made to resign from the army early in his career for being drunk on duty (a claim Grant, who was very truthful, said was not true), enemies found it convenient to claim he was drunk on many occasions when he had not touched a drop.

Chernow’s coverage of the Civil War makes very clear how much the nation has to thank Grant for its end, after a series of generals got nowhere against Lee. In fact, in his time, Grant was considered one of the greatest generals of all time, whereas his legacy has been disparaged, with prominent Southern historians claiming his success was only because the North had more resources available than the South.

The implication I always took away from Grant’s presidency was that he must have been corrupt if his administration was. First, administrations had been rife with corruption since Jackson’s. Second, although Grant believed in the patronage system, the idea of awarding positions because of merit was actually a new one, and Grant did award many positions for that reason. Last, like many very honest men, Grant tended to trust too easily, with unfortunate results.

Although many of the positive results of Grant’s administration were nullified by subsequent changes when Reconstruction was eliminated, Chernow documents many benefits for black Americans and in Grant’s attempts to help Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others. Grant’s administration gave the vote to black men and wiped out the first incarnation of the Ku Kluxers.

Chernow has written a rivetting book that has convinced me that Grant is one of our most underrated and misrepresented presidents. He was a great man.

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Review 1466: Vanishing Cornwall

Over the years, I have read most of the novels written by Daphne du Maurier, but when I made up my current Classics Club list, I came across this work of nonfiction. It’s the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

Vanishing Cornwall is a little hard to describe. Du Maurier made her principal residence in Cornwall for many years, and I guess I would call this book an appreciation.

She starts out by traveling around the area with her son to take photographs from each of the Hundreds of Cornwall. So, the book is in small part a travel book. But as it progresses from region to region, aside from lyrical descriptions and photos of the scenery, du Maurier includes stories from history and folk lore. Toward the end of the book, she switches to chapters on specific topics, like fishing or free-trading, associated with Cornwall.

She ends with a conservation message, at the time a concern to preserve the area’s beauty while finding some way to help support the locals. I have never been to Cornwall, but I would imagine that some of what she has to say is out of date now, as it was even between 1967, when the book was first published, and 1980, the date of my edition, which switched out the original black and white photos for colored ones and added an epilogue. She does tend to romanticize some subjects, and her assertions such as the one that King Arthur did actually exist are a little more in doubt now.

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Review 1464: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Dreyer’s English was recommended to me by a friend, and it proved to be so popular at the library that I had to wait two months for my hold to come through. As I worked as a writer for more than 30 years, not too much of what Dreyer has to say is a surprise to me, but his facetious style is refreshing.

This book is a familiarly organized writing reference, but it’s easy to simply read it, because it’s fun. Dreyer got on my good side almost immediately by citing Words into Type, a book that was my editing bible for years. I noticed in later years that young writers were rather sneery about it (“That’s out of date, isn’t it?”), or I more frequently met with a blank stare when I recommended it. Now I feel vindicated.

Most interesting to me was the expansion of the “easily confused” list from that included in Words into Type. I was surprised at the increase in the number of simple items being confused.

From its Intro to its Outro, Dreyer’s English contains useful information for even the most casual writer. I think I’m going to buy a copy.

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Review 1392: A Very Private Eye

I am not much for reading letters and diaries, because I like story telling, even in nonfiction, rather than glimpses of a life. So, A Very Private Eye, a collection of Barbara Pym’s diary entries and letters, was probably not the best choice for me. Still, a good friend gave me the book, so I decided to read it.

The book was both worse and better than I expected. It begins with Pym’s diary entries as she starts Oxford. In no time, she has embroiled herself with Henry Harvey, who treats her shamefully. Unfortunately, instead of telling him to bugger off like he deserves, she records her heart-rendings, which continue for years.

Next comes a series of letters to Harvey and his wife, and to other friends. I found the letters to the Harveys excruciating. She gives herself the identity of the spinster, Miss Pym, and writes about herself in the third person in a false, jokey tone with constant reminders of her single status. Very obvious. I would think the wife would have been wary.

I was just about to give up on her at around 100 pages in, when the book gets into the war and becomes much more interesting. Similarly, it gets more interesting as she ages, although she refers to a lot of people whose role in her life is not explained. (That would have been helpful, although each section begins with an explanatory introduction by the editors.)

She went through about ten years when no one would publish her books because they were no longer thought to be marketable. Then two prominent literary figures independently listed her as one of Britain’s most underrated authors. Her next books were published, and she was eventually shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I felt it was sad that this happened for her just a few years before she died.

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Review 1383: Educated

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about being raised by a bipolar, survivalist fundamentalist Mormon father and his subservient wife in the depths of rural Idaho. Westover and her younger siblings were home-schooled after her father’s paranoia led him to withdraw his children from school. This home schooling was something I have feared for many home-schooled children when their education is not supervised. Their mother began by trying to have school each day, but their father insisted on dragging the kids out to his junkyard to work. Finally, their mother settled for teaching them to read, and the only educated children in the family became so by their own efforts.

Westover’s father did not observe any work safety practices in the junkyard. Since he didn’t believe in medical care except for his wife’s herbal remedies, some accidents resulted in severe injuries for his children and himself.

Aside from Westover’s difficulties in getting a formal education, this book is more about the toll it took for her to go against her family’s teachings enough to do it—a woman’s place being in the home. Even more so, it is about her struggle with her own view of herself, especially after her sister asks her to support her when she tells the family that her brother Shawn is abusive. Westover must figure out who she is in the absence of her family. She must re-examine her own past to learn the lessons about her family—that her mother put her subservience to her father before the safety of their children; that their father would rather disown one child than face the reality of another’s abusive nature, and that some of her siblings will turn against her, too; even that most of her father’s ideas are actually not true.

This is an amazing and enthralling book. Westover’s journey from a college student who never heard of the Holocaust to a doctorate in history and a commensurate growth in self-awareness is inspiring.

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Review 1357: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

In the early 20th century, Teffi was Russia’s most famous writer, a journalist, short story writer, and playwright. In 1918, after the October Revolution, an impresario persuaded her to travel to Odessa along with a troupe of actors and other performers to give some readings. She ended up four years later in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life. This book relates the beginning of her journey.

The dangers of revolutionary Moscow convinced her to leave, but she never meant the move to be more than temporary. People had been disappearing from the city, and it wasn’t clear whether they left voluntarily, were killed, or were deported to Siberia.

The journey to Odessa was harrowing. Conditions were chaotic. At one stop in Ukraine, only their status as performers saved them from the authorities, who were murdering train passengers to take their valuables.

In Odessa, Teffi found almost a holiday atmosphere, meeting some of the people who had disappeared from Moscow. Soon, though, everyone was panicking at the approach of the Bolshevik army.

This book is written in a lively, quirky style with a great deal of humor. Although Teffi herself is sometimes naive, she observes events with a satirical eye. Yet, at times, she is lyrical in her longing for her homeland.

I put this book on my Classics Club list because I was unfamiliar with it and it sounded interesting. Then it came up for my Classics Club Spin. I am glad to have read it. I am interested in Russia, and it gives a much more accurate idea of the effects of the Russian revolution than books like A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Review 1342: The Garden of the Gods

Cover for Garden of the GodsThe Garden of the Gods is a fitting conclusion to Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy. In the book, we meet a few more eccentric characters and are treated to funny events and lush descriptions of the island of Corfu.

The centerpiece of this book is a visit to Corfu by the King of Greece. This event brings about a multitude of opportunities for incompetently executed patriotic displays.

One of the most entrancing new characters is Jeejee, a visitor from India whom Mrs. Durrell takes for royalty because of his first name, Prince. (That is, Larry sends her a letter saying that Prince Jeejee is arriving for a visit.) He is a charming person who entertains us with his attempts at levitation.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThe final chapters of the book deal with a typically over-the-top party that the Durrells throw for Jeejee’s birthday. All goes well until Margo’s cabaret, in which the various characters entertain the other guests with acts that include an interminable saucy sea chanty by Captain Creech and an escape act by Mr. Kralefsky and Theodore that goes badly wrong.

The trilogy is funny and entertaining. Although the first book is the source of the original Masterpiece series, the newer series is suggested by characters and events in the last two books. I think most people would enjoy these memoirs.

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Review 1339: In Pieces

Cover for In PiecesI don’t normally read celebrity biographies or memoirs or, for that matter, very many autobiographies at all, because I don’t expect them to be truthful. Or let’s just say, I expect them to leave a lot out. Also, I’m not interested in celebrities so much as literary or historical figures. That being said, I was struck by how forthcoming Sally Field seemed in an interview, so when I saw In Pieces at the library, I decided to read it.

Field talks of a lifelong battle between what she needed to do for herself and what she needed to do for other people. The roots of her problems and her lack of confidence in herself seem to lie in the sexual abuse she underwent throughout her childhood at the hands of her stepfather and her mother’s reaction when she told her. Because of that, she learned to separate herself from her emotional life and only connected with it when she was acting.

Also interesting is her struggle to get herself taken seriously after her role in The Flying Nun. This problem haunted her career, even after she took on some difficult parts.

I found this an affecting and interesting book. It is well written and involving.

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