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March 2018 Book Review – Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (#nonfiction)

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Hello my lovely readers! Notice how that says book review and not books reviews? Well that’s because I somehow managed to only finish one book in the entire month of March. :-O

I know the reason for this. It’s because my print book I was reading was a real chunkster. So while I read religiously throughout the month, I just didn’t quite finish the print book within the month of March. But I’m actually ok with this book getting to take center stage, because it’s a cool one.

John Henry is an American folk song that I thought was famous until I was reading this book and had to keep explaining it to people. (I couldn’t find the version I grew up listening to on YouTube but here it is on Spotify – John Henry as sung by Wee Sing on the album America). Essentially the lyrics tell the story of John Henry, a black man who worked on the railroad and beat the steam drill at going through a mountain but died doing so. There are many different versions of the lyrics, but this is the closest to the version I grew up listening to. What’s the point of singing this song to and with children? Well, that depends on who you ask and what version you sang. The gospel version focuses on John Henry’s rewards in Heaven. The blues version focuses on the unfairness of the job and the fear (warranted or not) of machines replacing blue collar labor.

(I did find it comforting that the book indicates that this is an extremely popular folk song in the United States – with the librarians at the Library of Congress telling the author it’s the most researched folk song in the US.)

In Steel Drivin Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson seeks to find the origins of this folk tale and see if there was a real man behind it. Fascinatingly, he successfully found who most likely was the real John Henry. Perhaps not surprisingly, John Henry was a free black man who in the immediately post Civil War era (Reconstruction) Virgina was arrested on what may have been fair charges of shoplifting (no one can really say if a crime actually occurred or not) that was then escalated to a higher charge (most likely falsely). In spite of the North attempts at forcing the South to treat black men and women equally to white, some districts in the South pulled off the Jim Crow laws, which led to unequal punishment for equal crimes, which meant John Henry got put away in prison for a very long time for a very small crime. Unfortunately for him, this was about the time that people got it into their heads that they could use prison labor in the form of chain gangs much like they used to use slave labor. John Henry was sent out to work on the railroad and died there, as working on the railroad was essentially a death sentence.

Some prisoners escaped, and some were killed by guards for what the railroad labeled “mutiny,” but the remainder entered tunnels where tiny bits of microscopic rock floated in the air, entered their lungs, and over a period of six months to three years, strangled them. These prisoners died gasping for air. (location 34%)

I for one after reading that passage couldn’t help but think of Eric Garner and was saddened by how little some things have changed.

Many American folk songs, including this one, were actually originally work songs. I learned through this book that rock and roll refers to these work songs, as the two man crew who drilled had one man to shake the stake and another to hit it, which was called rocking and rolling. Songs were sung to a particular beat both to pass the time and to help ensure no one’s fingers got smashed.

The original blues version of John Henry as opposed to praising his work ethic actually was memorializing his strength and the unfair situation. His status as a prisoner wasn’t so much rewritten as not mentioned (because it didn’t matter), and his strength of character was symbolized by being a man of large stature, even though the real John Henry was actually quite short (under 5’4″). The gospel version focuses more on his strong Protestant work ethic and the rewards he’ll see in Heaven.

The author speaks some about the song and the groups that attached themselves to it over time. I found it interesting that Communist groups in America liked it because of its demonstration of an unfair use of labor. Also interesting was that he found that schools in historically black neighborhoods would devote entire music classes to the song and its history. He also traces John Henry in everything from comic books to Disney shows. I admit that I found the beginning of the book about the real John Henry and the early versions of the song to be the most interesting.

I would have given this book 5 stars but the ending let me down, particularly when the author postulates what message John Henry’s bones might tell us, and I thought that message was very far off the mark, speaking about working less when in fact John Henry was mistreated due to racism, not out of any workaholicism of his own!

Overall, though, I’m not sad this was the only book I read in the month of March. I learned so much, and I really did enjoy it.
(4 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(source: Amazon)

My total for the month of March 2018:

  • 1 book
    • 0 fiction; 1 nonfiction
    • 0 female authors; 1 male author
    • 1 ebooks; 0 print books; 0 audiobooks
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A trio of #nonfiction Reviewed in #Haiku

August 5, 2017 2 comments

anne frank

We All Wore Stars: Memories of Anne Frank from Her Classmates
By: Theo Coster

Summary:
Theo Coster was one of 28 Jewish Dutch students segregated into their own classroom by the Nazis. Another one of these students was Anne Frank. Theo gathers stories from other surviving students and himself both of their experiences of the Holocaust and their memories of Anne.

Haiku Review:
All together yet
Each experience unique
Grounding reminder.

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Gift
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crazyenough.jpg

Crazy Enough: A Memoir
By: Storm Large

Summary:
Storm knew growing up her mother was crazy so it was pretty scary when a doctor responded to her inquiry if she was crazy like her mother that she wasn’t yet but was going to be. Follow Storm through her journey of multiple diagnoses and a search to be more than just crazy.

Haiku Review:
A one-woman show
Reflects in the narrative
Left with some questions

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Publisher
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tidying up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By: Marie Kondo

Summary:
Japanese cleaning consultant vows she’s never had a client relapse after following her sort everything once by category not by room and then organize it method. You may have heard jokes in social media about her sorting method being based on “does this spark joy?”

Haiku Review:
Some good tips mixed with
Animism but take it
With a grain of salt

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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A Trio of #chicklit Reviewed in #Haiku

July 16, 2017 2 comments

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Valley of the Dolls
By: Jacqueline Susann

Summary:
The 1960s classic about four women and how fame and drugs destroyed them.

Haiku Review:
My dolls! My dolls! But
Hard to compete with modern
Opioid crisis.

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Gift
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The Runaway Princess
By: Hester Browne

Summary:
Amy Wilde’s new boyfriend has a secret….he’s a prince! Can she fit into his world without losing herself in the process?

Haiku Review:
The Prince and Me but
British with saving the bees
Left me wanting more

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
Buy It

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Cocktails for Three
By: Madeleine Wickham

Summary:
Three friends meet for cocktails every month but life events and secrets start to pull them apart.

Haiku Review:
If you can manage
To laugh at alcoholism
Then you might like it

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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Book Review: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows (Series, #1)

26225506Summary:
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

Review:
A fantasy written from a queer, female perspective that explores race and social justice featuring the common trope of multiple parallel worlds.

The basic plot is an intertwining of two common to fantasy: 1) there’s multiple parallel worlds 2) political intrigue warring societies etc… These are both done to a level I appreciate. They make sense without overwhelming me with world building and pages of explanations of how a society that doesn’t really exist works.

Both of these basic plots are used to explore queer viewpoints, feminism, and race, all through the lens of social justice. How much you’ll enjoy this lens depends upon the reader. I think the queer part is fairly well-done with a broad representation including: bisexual (by name!), lesbian, trans*, and polyamory. I’m not big on polyamory plots but I thought its inclusion in a parallel world made sense and was clearly not written from a perspective intended to purely titillate, rather, the emotional aspects of these relationships was explored. I do think the explorations of race lacked some of the subtlety present in the explorations of queerness. The white Australian girl being thrust into a parallel world where the majority race is black who is guided by another “worldwalker” who similarly fell through but decided to stay because she’s black and this world is better than Thatcher’s England struck me as a bit heavy-handed and overly simplistic. I’m also not sure how I felt about the black character being put into a secondary role as guide. I kept finding myself thinking how I would have preferred to have read her story. (You quickly find out she stayed in the world, gained some power, joined a polyamorous marriage, had a child, and more! What an interesting life!)

All of that said, I don’t often enjoy traditional style non-urban fantasy, and this one did keep me reading and interested. It’s fun to read a book about political intrigue and multiple worlds dominated by women, touched by dragons, and with no male gaze. I doubt I will seek out the second entry in the series, though, because I feel I’ve already got everything out of the story I’m going to get.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Dinosaur Tales by Ray Bradbury

March 15, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Dinosaur Tales by Ray BradburySummary:
Dinosaur Tales is a Magnificent Collection of Famous Tales by RAY BRADBURY, One of America’s Best-Loved and Best-Selling Authors. In This Elegantly Designed and Illustrated Book, Bradbury Presents All of His Dinosaur Stories in One Volume! “I have an idea that Bradbury’s work would have given Edgar Allan Poe a peculiar satisfaction to have written them himself.” -Somerset Maugham

Review:
Ray Bradbury clearly loves dinosaurs. This collection of short stories just about dinosaurs was obviously a labor of love. The introduction to the book where Bradbury discusses at length his deep love of dinosaurs and complete disbelief that anyone could possibly not love them is one of the best parts of the book and totally sets the tone. Heck, I love dinosaurs myself but even I found his tone infectious and sent my own love soaring higher than I thought possible.

The collection consists of 5 short stories and a poem. The short stories range from a little boy who wants to be a dinosaur when he grows up to a time-traveling business that obviously goes awry to a lonely sea monster who mistakes a lighthouse for a friend. They alternate between hilarity and bitter-sweet, all touched with pure Americana. In news that surprises no one, the poem was my least favorite but I didn’t hate it (and that’s strong praise for a poem). All of the stories (and poem) are lovingly illustrated by a team of illustrators, with each one receiving its own unique style. It’s definitely a book that I think is well worth owning in print, and it’s taken up residence on my shelf as a reminder that I don’t always dislike short stories. They’ve just gotta be the right ones.

Recommended to dinosaur fans, and to quote Bradbury, who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

March 6, 2017 4 comments

Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by SusannahSummary:
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

Review:
Written by a journalist, the reader soon discovers this memoir is a survivor’s tale of brain encephalitis. Divided into three parts, the first establishes Susannah’s life when she came down with the illness and the first appearance of symptoms. The second covers the time period of her illness that she actually can’t remember, and features her own investigative journalism into what happened during that time. The third part covers the first part of her recovery time in the first year or so after she recovers her memory.

The first two thirds of the book are quite strong for different reasons. In the first third, Susannah recalls with such clarity the feeling of is this really happening or am I losing my mind? Specifically, the first thing that happens is she’s sure she has bed bugs but other people (including the exterminator) see no evidence of them. To this day, no one knows if Susannah really had bed bugs or if hallucinating them was a first symptom of her illness.

The second third of the book highlights her skills as an investigative journalist. Since she herself doesn’t remember the worst of her sickness immediately prior to or during her hospitalization, she is able to take an impartial distance to the whole situation and report on how her divorced parents put aside their differences to care for her together, as well as look at how the medical system both cared for her but also almost missed her critical diagnosis. Susannah recognizes how lucky she was to have people on her side advocating with the hospital for her, as well as to be in a city with such high-quality and cutting edge medical care.

The last third where she talks about her years of recovery and her life now was the weakest. The level of insight and analysis found in the first two parts was absent. While Susannah clearly empathizes with those with mental illness, there’s a clear sense that she thinks that all mental illness is just an illness making you look mental and not actually maybe a different way of interacting with the world. A different kind of normal you’re just born with. I think Susannah fails to take into consideration what if she was just born seeing colors more brightly and seeing the walls breathe? What if that was just always her normal? That’s the reality for many with a mental illness, and she kind of just glosses over that and comes down on the it’s all just a physical illness side. I’m more of a believer that it’s ok for there to be different ways to be “normal” and maybe society should stop shoving us all into the same shaped peghole. While it’s true that situations like Susannah’s where your whole personality changes overnight are devastating, that’s not how all mental illness presents, and I think she misses that in her quest to find and diagnose those with a brain inflammation misdiagnosed.

Overall, this is an intensely readable book that leaves you questioning what is truly madness and what is just abnormality? And what makes us who we are? If a person is unable to remember what they are doing, does that mean they’re behaving as themselves authentically or as quite the opposite?

4 out of 5 stars

Source: ARC from publisher in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

February 19, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: He, She and It by Marge PiercySummary:
In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish free town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions–and the ability to kill….

Review:
I picked this up because of how incredibly moved I was by Woman on the Edge of Time (review) by the same author. While I found this interesting and unique, it didn’t move me in quite the same way. I imagine it would probably move a reader more if they are Jewish or a mother.

The book is richly steeped in Jewish culture and history. All of Earth is either a slum or run by corporations in basically corporate states except for a few free towns which manage to exist due to their value in trade. Tikva is one of these, and it’s made clear this is partially so because the founders were concerned about maintaining Jewish culture in a world being overcome by just a few corporations. The corporation Shira works at before returning to Tikva judges her in her performance reviews for staying too attached to her home culture, including things like naming her son a traditionally Jewish name. So there is this very interesting thread about how minority cultures can maintain themselves in the face of economic threat and assimilation. When Shira gets a divorce, the corporation grants majority custody to her ex-husband and ultimately essentially full custody when he is sent to work off-world. Overcome with grief, Shira moves home to Tikva. Here we learn that Shira’s grandmother Malkah raised her and see how differently her own mother approaches motherhood than Shira does. This is one of the key threads of the book.

The other key thread is personhood and what makes us human. One of the residents of Tikva has succeeded in making an illegal cyborg. There are periodic chapters where Malkah is telling him the story of the Jewish myth of the Golem (a human-like beast made of clay to protect the Jewish people from persecution. More info). Very clear lines are drawn between the golem and the modern-day cyborg, who was made to protect Tikva and keep it free. Of course people start to have mixed feelings about the cyborg and asking not just what makes him human but also if he can be Jewish? (He himself identifies as Jewish and attends synagogue). I particularly enjoyed that Malkah isn’t just the story teller to the cyborb but she’s also one of the most important and most intelligent programmers in Tikva. The programmers essentially are what keep Tikva free, and an elderly woman is one of the most important ones.

Even though it’s a topic I’ve read a lot in scifi, I always enjoy the exploration of what makes us human and at what point does intelligent technology gain personhood, and the way it was explored here was different from what I’ve seen elsewhere. In particular, I thought the not just female but female Jewish lens was new and great. But I will admit that I had trouble relating to Shira and her struggle with motherhood and types of motherhood. I think motherhood can sometimes be overly thought about and held up on a pedestal in our culture and in feminism too. While mothers who choose to mother differently are acknowledged in the book, women who choose not to mother are not. It’s as if mothering is a natural part of womanhood, and that was not something I felt I could connect to in the book.

Overall, though, this was a wonderfully different take on the scifi exploration of cyborgs and artificial intelligence. Recommended to scifi readers, but particularly to those seeking a Jewish lens or an exploration of motherhood in addition to cyborgs.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Paperbackswap

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