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Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)Summary:
Have you ever heard of Typhoid Mary? The Irish-American cook in the early 1900s who was lambasted for spreading typhoid through her cooking. What many don’t know is that she was an asymptomatic carrier. This was the early ages of germ theory, and most didn’t realize you could pass on an illness without any symptoms. Captured and held against her will on North Brother Island, it’s easy to empathize with her plight. Until she’s released and begins cooking again.

Review:
I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.

I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.

Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).

At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.

The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).

On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.

I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.

Source: Audible

3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms by Chris Kyle and William Doyle (Audiobook narrated by John Pruden)

Book Review: American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms by Chris Kyle and William Doyle (Audiobook narrated by John Pruden)Summary:
Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL responsible for the book American Sniper, was working on a labor of love at the time of his death–this book. His wife and co-author worked together to complete the book (his wife providing an introduction of context). Kyle loved America and guns, and here he combines the two together to present the history of the US through the lens of guns.

Review:
The idea of this book is nothing new. I certainly studied a lot of guns/weapons and their impact while working on my History BA (concentration in US History). But as both a US History and gun lover, I was excited by the idea of a short book that would let me revisit both topics.  I do wish I had paid more attention to the fact that this book is a co-authorship between a Navy SEAL and a Fulbright Scholar though, since I personally tend to find books written from this type of partnership to be a bit frustrating. I certainly found that this book lands in that category.

The book starts with an introduction by Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, providing context of why he wanted to write this book and how far along he was on it. I wound up pausing to look up his death, because I honestly didn’t realize the American Sniper had died. I wish this book had mentioned, at least simply, how he died.

The guns covered in the book are: American Long Rifle, Spencer Repeater, Colt Single-Action Army Revolver, Winchester 1873 Rifle, M1903 Springfield, M1911 Pistol, Thompson Submachine Gun, M1 Garand, .38 Special Police Revolver, and M16 Rifle. Kyle clearly knows and understands how guns work. I found the descriptions of these guns to be the best-written portions of the books. In particular his explanation of shotguns (single-action or repeating) was the first I’ve heard that had me really grasping how they work.

The quality of the history writing comes and goes, though, and I think that’s evidence of places Doyle had a stronger hand on the writing. Some of the historical episodes are presented clearly, factually, and without obvious bias. Others, though, beg for an editing pass either for removal or acknowledgement of bias or to tighten up the focus or provide a better story arc.  Historical nonfiction can still have a story arc, something that Kyle clearly understands, but he tends to go off on rants about certain parts of the story that he finds most interesting leaving the reader a bit lost or frustrated. The passage that I found most frustrating was when Kyle chose to focus on a soldier in the Revolutionary War era because he descended from him. Sure, that soldier used the gun being focused upon, but so did practically everyone else at the time. It read a bit like your uncle doing the family genealogy, rather than a serious historical nonfiction. What I found most jarring though was the rapid switching between this style of writing and more typical mainstream serious historical nonfiction.

I felt the audiobook narrator did a good job embodying Kyle’s voice, and was easy to listen to.

Overall, readers looking for greater quick knowledge of the guns used at pivotal points in US History would be the most likely to benefit from this read. Those looking for more serious historical analysis or typical historical writing should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

February 22, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen DunmoreSummary:
Cathy and her brother Rob live with their emotionally distant grandfather on family land in England because her mother left, and her father died in a mental institution. Cathy and Rob seek refuge with each other against the world, but World War I won’t let them keep the world at bay forever.

Review:
I generally enjoy controversial books, and I heard that this historical fiction included the always controversial plot point of incest. The short version of my review is: it’s amazing how boring a book about incest and WWI can actually be. For the longer version, read on.

The book is told non-linearly in what appears to be an attempt to build suspense. The constant jumping with very few reveals for quite some time, though, just led to my own frustration.

I was similarly frustrated by the fact that Cathy’s childish interpretation of her father’s mental illness never progresses. She never moves from a child’s understanding to an adult’s understanding. This lack of progress gave a similar stagnant feeling to the book.

Of course, what the book is best-known for is the incest between Cathy and Rob. I found the scenes of incest neither shocking nor eliciting of any emotion. There are scenes where Cathy and Rob discuss how “unfair” it is that they cannot have children and society will judge them. But then again there are scenes that imply that Rob took advantage of Cathy. Well, which is it? It’s not that I demand no gray areas, but the existence of gray areas in such a topic would best be supported by a main character with insight. Cathy remains childlike throughout the book. Indeed, I think the characterization of Cathy is what holds the whole book back. Because the book is Cathy’s perspective, this lack in her characterization impacts the whole thing. What could be either a horrifying or a thought-provoking book instead ends up being simply meh. A lot of time is spent saying essentially nothing.

That said, I did enjoy how the author elicits the setting. I truly felt as if I was there in that cold and often starving rural England. I felt as if I could feel the cold in my bones. That beauty of setting is something that many writers struggle with.

Overall, this book read as gray and dull to me as the early 20th century English countryside it is set in. Readers with a vested interest in all varieties of WWI historic fiction and those who enjoy a main character with a childlike inability to provide insight are the most likely to enjoy this book. Those looking for a shocking, horrifying, or thought-provoking read should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Nonfiction November: Fiction and Nonfiction Book Pairings

November 10, 2015 11 comments

I was looking forward to this week’s theme of Nonfiction November the most, because one of my favorite parts of being a librarian is “reader’s advisory.”  Reader’s advisory is when you chat to a person about what they enjoy reading, what they’re interested in, what they’re looking for, and recommend a few books to them as books they might enjoy reading.  (I don’t get to do this a ton as an academic medical librarian, but it does still come up sometimes).  I view this as a book blogger version of that.

For this, I thought I would select out a few of my favorite fiction books and seek out nonfiction books that would pair well with them.  If you read and enjoyed the fiction, consider checking out the nonfiction.  Of course it will also work the other way around!  If you’ve read the nonfiction book and enjoyed it, consider checking out the fiction.

First Pairing: Sled Dogs

Wolf howling at moon.The Call of the Wild
by:

Jack London
Fiction
Blurb:
Buck is a spoiled southern dog enjoying a posh life when one of the family’s servants steals him and sells him away to be a sled dog for the Alaska gold rush.  Buck soon goes from an easy life to one of trials and tribulations as the result of humans fawning over a golden metal, but it might not be all bad for him in the wild Alaskan north.

covergoldrushGold Rush Dogs
By:
Jane G. Haigh
Nonfiction
Blurb:
Dog lovers and history buffs will delight in this collection celebrating the beloved canines that offered companionship, protection, and hard work to their masters in the Far North.
Why pair it?
Buck, the main character (and dog) in The Call of the Wild is trained to be a sled dog for the gold rush (not the Iditarod).  This nonfiction book is about the gold rush dogs.

Second Pairing: Women in Ancient Japanese Court Life

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture.Fudoki
By:
Kij Johnson
Fiction
Blurb:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

coverdiaryDiary of Lady Murasaki
By:
Murasaki Shikibu
Nonfiction
Blurb:
The Diary recorded by Lady Murasaki (c. 973 c. 1020), author of The Tale of Genji, is an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi. Told in a series of vignettes, it offers revealing glimpses of the Japanese imperial palace the auspicious birth of a prince, rivalries between the Emperor’s consorts, with sharp criticism of Murasaki’s fellow ladies-in-waiting and drunken courtiers, and telling remarks about the timid Empress and her powerful father, Michinaga. The Diary is also a work of great subtlety and intense personal reflection, as Murasaki makes penetrating insights into human psychology her pragmatic observations always balanced by an exquisite and pensive melancholy.
Why pair it?
Fudoki features tales being told by an aging empress that illuminate women’s lives in ancient Japan.  This nonfiction period piece is a diary by a real woman with an insider’s view of the same court life.  Although not written by an empress, she was an empress’s companion.

Third Pairing: We’re Living in the Future the 1800s Scifi Imagined

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
Fiction
Blurb:
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.

cover_inthebeginningIn the Beginning…Was the Command Line
By:
Neal Stephenson
Nonfiction
Blurb:
This is “the Word” — one man’s word, certainly — about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the “one man” is Neal Stephenson, “the hacker Hemingway” (Newsweek) — acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) — the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson’s In the Beginning… was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.
Why this pairing?
Wells and Stephenson are both considered masters of the scifi genre.  In this nonfiction piece, Stephenson explicitly draws comparisons between modern culture and the one envisioned by Wells in The Time Machine.

Fourth Pairing: Scandinavia Is Perfect….Or Is It?!

Silhouette of a person standing in a white hall.The Unit
By:
Ninni Holmqvist
Fiction
Blurb:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.

fixedcoverThe Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
By:
Michael Booth
Nonfiction
Blurb:
The whole world wants to learn the secrets of Nordic exceptionalism: why are the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite having the highest taxes? If the Finns really have the best education system, how come they still think all Swedish men are gay? Are the Icelanders really feral? How are the Norwegians spending their fantastical oil wealth? And why do all of them hate the Swedes?
Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians, on and off, for over ten years, perplexed by their many strange paradoxes and character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world, whether it be for their food, television, social systems or chunky knitwear.
In this timely book he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other. Along the way a more nuanced, often darker picture emerges of a region plagued by taboos, characterised by suffocating parochialism and populated by extremists of various shades.
They may very well be almost nearly perfect, but it isn’t easy being Scandinavian.
Why this pairing?
The Unit is a unique dystopia in that it is set in Sweden and takes various aspects of Swedish culture to their dystopic extremes.  Since Scandinavia often comes across as idealistic, it was interesting to see a dystopia set there.  This nonfiction work takes a long tough look at Scandinavia and exposes the minuses (in addition to the pluses) of living there. 

That’s it for my pairings! I hope you all enjoyed them.  I know that I certainly found a few new books for my wishlist!

Nonfiction November: Your Year in Nonfiction

November 5, 2015 8 comments

Nonfiction November: Your Year in NonfictionHello my lovely readers!

This month I’m participating in Nonfiction November, a book blogger event cohosted by four different bloggers (not including myself) that brings our attention to our nonfiction reads.  Each week has a different topic, and this week’s asks us to look back at our year in nonfiction.

So far in 2015, I’ve read 6 nonfiction books.  They are, in order of when I read them:

I think it’s interesting to note that exactly half of my nonfiction reads were by women and half by men.

Now, on to the discussion questions about my reads!

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?
I’d have to go with Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.  Although I have a BA in History, I never had much interest in the Civil War.  This book’s title intrigued me, and then the content more than lived up to it.  It held my interest, was easy to read (without being dumbed-down), and I still learned a lot from it.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?
Definitely Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World’s Most Pungent Food–with over 100 Recipes.  I actually texted two of my friends while I was still reading it with snippets about garlic.  Since a lot of my friends enjoy cooking and gardening, and this hit on both of those interests, it led to me recommending it more often than some of my other reads.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?
Usually I read at least one self-improvement nonfiction read a year. I am working on one, but have yet to finish it.  I also haven’t touched a memoir this year, which kind of surprised me.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
I hope to meet other book bloggers who also read nonfiction! I’ve met a couple of my best book blogger buddies through niche events like this, and I’d like to add some more. 🙂

Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology Behind the World’s Most Pungent Food — With Over 100 Recipes by Robin Cherry

August 27, 2015 5 comments

Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World's Most Pungent Food--with over 100 Recipes by Robin CherrySummary:
A history of the world and medicine as seen through the eyes of garlic, plus a lesson on the many varieties of garlic, how to grow it, and where to find other garlic lovers.  Topped off with a collection of over 100 recipes from all over the world featuring garlic, both historic and new.

Review:
When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew I needed a review copy.  I’m a passionate home chef with a love of garlic and a never-ending interest on the history of food.  This book’s title indicated it would hit all three of those interests, and its content did not let me down.

The book is divided into two parts.  Part One focuses on everything but the recipes. Part Two is the recipes.  Part One’s chapters cover the history of using garlic for health and for food, garlic in legends and lore, and how to grow your own.  This is the section that most entertained my friends and fiancé, as they found themselves the recipients of random facts about garlic.  One friend received an email of all of the types of garlic that originated in the country of Georgia; another a tip that growing some near her fruit tree might be beneficial for the tree.  Here are a few of my favorite facts that I learned in Part One:

  • The world’s first-known medical text also mentions medical uses of garlic (loc 129)
  • Garlic is designated as a drug in Japan (loc 222)
  • Spanish immigrants were the most likely to survive during the colonization of the Western hemisphere, thanks to their consumption of garlic.  Carrying the cloves protected them from disease-carrying mosquitoes.  (loc 309-313)
  • Garlic vodka is used as an antiflu remedy in Russia (Bonus: the book has the recipe for making this for yourself). (loc 392)
  • “In addition to preventing colds, garlic is effective in killing viral meningitis, viral pneumonia, influenza, and herpes.” (loc 423)
  • “Garlic also kills bacteria directly, by invading its cells and causing them to explode, thus bacteria has not opportunity to develop a resistance to it.” (loc 427)
  • “Green-colored garlic is stronger than white garlic because it contains more of the aromatic sulfuric compounds.” (loc 922)
  • The earliest bridal bouquets incorporated garlic to ward off the evil spirits. (loc 1067)
  • There are over 200 varieties of garlic. (loc 1203)

Part One ends with tips on how to cultivate garlic and a selection of the various types of garlic, including notes on where they grow best, how they look, and how they taste.  Garlic may be broadly divided into hardnecks and softnecks, but there are subvarieties within these two main ones.  (Softnecks are the ones that you can braid).  My one criticism of Part One is that I wish it had gone more in-depth into the history of garlic all over the world.  It left me wanting more.  Perhaps there isn’t more, but I certainly wish there was.  I would additionally note that, although I personally enjoyed reading about the many varieties of garlic and took copious notes, some readers might find the listing of the types a bit tedious to read and may not be expecting it in a book of this nature.

Part Two is the recipes.  It starts with notes on how to handle and prepare garlic.  The recipes are then divided into: dips, sauces, and condiments; bread, pizza, and pasta; soups; salads and salad dressings; appetizers; poultry; lamb; beef; seafood; vegetarian; side dishes; dessert; and historical recipes.    I marked off a total of 19 recipes that I definitely want to try, which is quite a lot for me.  Often I’ll read a cookbook and only be interested in one or two of the recipes.  The recipes cover a nice variety of cuisines, and the historic recipes are fascinating, although most readers will probably not try them as they require things such as fresh blood.  Besides the historic recipes, the dessert ones are probably the most surprising.  I actually did mark one off as one I’d like to try–Roasted Garlic Creme Brulee.

I have managed to make one of the recipes so far: Garlic Scape Pesto (loc 1649).  For those who don’t know, garlic scapes are the green stalks that grow out of the bulbs.  They must be trimmed (on most varieties).  They taste a bit like a cross between garlic and leeks.  Our local produce box happened to give us a bunch of them right around when I read the book, and I’m a big pesto fan, so I decided to try the recipe.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

The recipe is supposed to make 2 cups.  I halved it, and somehow still wound up with 2 cups of pesto.  The recipe suggests storing the leftovers under a layer of olive oil.  I found that unnecessary.  My extra kept in the fridge in a tupperware container for a week without adding a layer of protective oil.  The pesto was truly delicious though.  I partially chose it since I have made garlic scape pesto before, and I must say I found this one much more delicious than the other recipe that I tried.  I am looking forward to trying the others I am interested in, although I will probably continue to halve the recipes, as I am only cooking for two.

Overall, foodies with a love of garlic will find this book both fascinating and a source of new recipes to try.  Some readers may wish for more information, while others may find themselves a bit more informed on the varieties of garlic than they were really looking for.  All will find themselves chock full of new information and eager to try new ways to use garlic…and perhaps even to start growing some heirloom varieties for themselves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman

August 13, 2015 9 comments

Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma GoldmanSummary:
Emma Goldman was a Russian immigrant to the United States who embraced Anarchism and became an impassioned orator and pioneer in the movement for birth control.  She was deported in 1919 for her antiwar activities and spent the remainder of her life moving among multiple countries.  This book is a collection of a variety of her essays and includes a contemporaneous biographical sketch and preface. You may read more about Emma Goldman and her life here.

Review:
I picked up this essay collection due to my interest in both US and women’s history.  It then languished on my TBR pile for years until I heard about how the Emma Goldman Archive at UC Berkeley was going to lose its funding (source). The archive is currently still running thanks to charitable donations, (source) but I still wanted to invest some time in learning more about this important female historical figure, and what better way than by reading her own papers.

The essays in this collection are: Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, Minorities Versus Majorities, The Psychology of Political Violence, Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure, Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty, Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School, The Hypocrisy of Puritanism, The Traffic in Women, Woman Suffrage, The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, Marriage and Love, and The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought.

The thing to understand about Anarchism (the historic early 20th century kind anyway, I won’t venture to talk about modern Anarchism as I have not studied it at all) is that the basis of Anarchist belief is that there should be no government and no religion.

Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. (page 38)

Emma took this to the conclusion that fighting for rights within the governmental power structure was pointless since the government shouldn’t be involved anyway.  Modern readers may thus be surprised at how against women getting the right to vote she was.  The reasoning behind it, though was that she thought it was a pointless fight.  Like putting frosting on a shit cake.  It won’t make the cake any less shitty.  It’s interesting reading these papers how much faith Emma had in human nature to do good.  It’s the power structures she considered evil.

My lack of faith in the majority is dictated by my faith in the potentialities of the individual. (page 34)

What I found most interesting in reading these essays, beyond getting a firmer understanding of Anarchism, is how most of them are still highly relatable today.  They have not been particularly dated.  Only “Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School” and “The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought” came across as dated and a bit difficult to read to me.  The rest could have been pulled straight from a social justice Tumblr account, with just a few names and places changed.  The three essays on women were the most interesting to me, particularly for the rather prophetic predictions that Emma made about the direction women’s rights were heading.  In particular, one section discusses that women winning the right to work will just make everything more difficult because women are still seen as the primary caregivers and homemakers.  They will just end up working just as much at home and out and about.  Emma also pointed out that society would come to expect two incomes, making it impossible for women to not work even if they want to.  This has certainly come to pass.  Emma’s solution to this is more individual freedom, and her passage of advice to women still rings true today:

Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.; by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation.  (page 132)

Sections that would probably stir up the strongest feelings among modern readers include frequent rants against the Catholic church, hatred of all patriotism or nationalism, very strong anti-military positions, and a strong negative view of marriage.  However, if the modern reader keeps in mind that Emma was for 100% individual freedom and individuality, it’s easier to see that it’s not an individual institution she had something against, but rather institutions in general.  Think of her as an extreme libertarian, and it’s easier to understand.  In the case of marriage, for instance, it’s not that Emma was against love or being part of a couple, but rather against the state being involved in that love.

One aspect I think was missing from these essays was more from Emma on what she thought the ideal world would really look like.  How would things work once total individual freedom was won?  This is not touched upon very much, beyond Emma’s belief that crime would disappear without crooked institutions and there would be no more war.  I found her belief in innate human goodness to be overly optimistic, verging on naive.  But I also found it to be endearing that she had so much faith in humanity.

Overall, the modern reader will still find most of these essays highly readable and may be surprised by how modern many of them feel.  Readers will realize how little some things change through time and also will come away with a better understanding of the stance of the often feared and misunderstood Anarchists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Counts For:
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