Three Book Reports

Published July 31, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

(They’re short, though!)

Yeah, keeping up with the “Book Report” thing. It’s kinda fun, somehow. So, we’re going to start with the best, and work our way down from there. There will be a thematic shift from the first to the second book, and a dramatic shift in quality from the second to the third. Just so you know.

Book One: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Just like everyone else, I read this book in high school, but I apparently wasn’t ready yet, or something. I didn’t really remember it; I remembered reading it, and I remembered that the school’s drama department performed the play a year or two later (which, oddly, let me figure out The Usual Suspects way too quickly, due to a coincidence of casting in the young man playing Atticus), but mostly all I remembered was a few mental images. I had a mental image of Atticus standing in the middle of the street with the gun, a Shane-like reluctant gunman, though I couldn’t remember precisely who or what he was supposed to be shooting down, and I remembered the idea of the trial, blazoned on my brain via the movie still of Gregory Peck standing in a courtroom looking upright and noble, despite that I haven’t even seen the movie, and I remembered the basic outline of the stuff about Boo Radley. Obviously, just like everyone else, I decided to re-read it now—after it had been on my “gee, I really ought to re-read that someday” list for eons—because of the sequel. Specifically, it was when I learned that the sequel had actually been written first and then the manuscript had been lost for 55 years, that was when I decided that yes, I definitely did want to read it, and so I’d have to re-read this one first.

And I’m very glad I did. Because wow, this book was so much better than I understood when I read it for English class 20+ years ago. Obviously, being from the Midwestern suburbs rather than the small town South, there are probably still subtleties that go over my head—not to mention aspects of the 1930s that I don’t get, having been born 40 years later—but I think a lot of it meant much more to me now that it would have in high school, especially since I was ludicrously sheltered. (I probably didn’t even know what morphine was.) I think the part that resonated most strongly with me was watching Scout struggling to try to understand the hypocrisy of her society, especially at the end, where her teacher is talking about how much she hates Hitler for persecuting the Jews, and yet that same teacher had been raving at Tom’s trial about how far “his kind” had been getting “out of line,” and Scout’s so upset by it that she’s crying, but she can’t really get any sympathy or even explanations out of anyone…very powerful stuff. When you think about the kind of things that were happening in 1960, I wonder how people reacted back then when they read that? Did it make anyone realize that maybe they were being hypocrites? (Or maybe that kind of person had already stopped reading, or hadn’t ever started in the first place.) I’m looking forward to seeing how Scout grew up.  (I recently bought Go Set a Watchman, but I’m not going to start reading it until I finish reading The Death and Afterlife of Achilles, ’cause, you know, only two books at a time.  Well, three, if you count the one I’m reading on the Kindle app…but I’m almost done with that one, and it’s a collection of folktales, so it’s a bit different anyway…)

Book Two: The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson. A dual biography of Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennie Claflin, two remarkable women from the 19th century. They fought for the right for women to vote, practiced Spiritualism, Victoria made two bids for President of the United States (though the second one was somewhat half-hearted) even though women couldn’t vote yet, they opened a brokerage on Wall Street in 1870, Tennie was briefly officer of an otherwise all African-American armed forces unit, both made countless public lecture tours, and they ran a newspaper for years. They also had numerous legal battles, spent time in jail, were ridiculed by the press, may well have been forced into crimes by their father during their juvenile years, both had to suffer losing a beloved husband, and Victoria had the anguish of giving birth to a mentally disabled child. Their lives had more downs than ups, unfortunately, but these were two fascinating ladies, and it’s a crying shame that they’re not better known today, because—while they certainly stumbled along the way—they really were trying to provide a better life for women.

Okay, so that’s the subject matter. As to the book itself, it’s a good read. MacPherson doesn’t try to act as an apologist and make them out to be pristine angels; she admits their mistakes and foibles. I’d say this is a Rankean history in the good way: we’re being given an even portrait, presenting the facts, with the chaff of a hundred years of rancor and propaganda culled away to get at the grain of truth left behind. Now, obviously, we are expected to side with the sisters. Duh.  (So in that sense, it’s not the least bit Rankean.) Pretty much everything they fought for has long since been instituted, so it would be silly not to side with them now; they were visionaries, a hundred and fifty years ahead of their time. The Epilogue, where she starts tying in to current events, is a little unsettling. It starts out well:

Society should leave “the love affairs of the community to regulate themselves, instead of trusting to legislation to regulate them.” This is not a modern-day activist cheering the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, but Woodhull in 1871. “Put a woman on trial for anything—it is considered as a legitimate part of the defense to make the most searching inquiry into her sexual morality, and the decision generally turns upon the proof advanced in this regard.” These words are not a contemporary comment on the disparaging treatment of victims of domestic violence or rape—one of the reasons 54 percent of rapes go unreported today—but rather, Tennie Claflin speaking out in 1871.

After that, the Epilogue is mostly about the present, and not much about the sisters, which rather takes away from the pleasure of reading it, to my mind, since I tend to read history for the delight of leaving the present, as I don’t care for the present, finding it nasty, brutish and all-too-lengthy.

Book Three: Whores, Harlots & Wanton Women by Petrina Brown. Uh, yeah, it seemed like an interesting book when I saw it in the used book store. I could have sworn the dust jacket it had there had a different description on the interior flap. Maybe the must in that basement was making me halucinate. I dunno. Anyhow, their copy wasn’t used, and was full price, so I ended up ordering it from Amazon, where it was extremely cheap (which was a warning sign I should have listened to) so at least I didn’t spend much on it. According to the introduction, it would seem it was originally going to be called A History of Forbidden Sex, until someone decided to give it the even worse title it currently has. Either way, it doesn’t read like a final draft, more like a second-to-last draft. There are still typos, missing punctuation marks, the occasional mis-used homophone, and other such general mistakes that a good editor should have caught. Those are the little things. Then there are three big things.

Big thing one. Chapter seven is the second of two chapters involving harems. Much of it is repeated material from earlier chapters, primarily from the previous harem chapter. And when I say repeated material, I mean it quite literally. As in whole pages literally copied and pasted. And this book is short already, so having perhaps as much as half a chapter repeated is really noticeable. I suppose the author hadn’t been sure which chapter would better be served having that material, but then forgot that it was in both places and failed to delete it from one of them?

Big thing two. Non-fiction books are aimed at one of two types of audiences, either the general public or the academic crowd. Now, I admit that I usually read the latter type (which made the previous book a bit of a departure for me as well) but it’s not like I’ve never read the former type, so while I found it frustrating that she never cites any of her sources other than direct quotes, I’m willing to let that go under the name of “non-academic non-fiction.” (Though she forgot to cite at least one direct quote, which is a different thing entirely.) However, and this is the big thing I’ve been building to the whole time here, she provides nothing even remotely resembling a bibliography. So you have no way of checking her sources. Even non-academic non-fiction usually provides a limited bibliography, sometimes cleverly disguised under a title like “Further Reading.” Because anyone who’s devoted the time and effort to writing a book on a subject to educate the common person-on-the-street obviously wants to encourage them to learn more. I have to wonder why this author does not. Because, believe me, while a lot of what she said was pretty basic, some of it was also pretty out there, and I was like “you’re going to have to give me a citation if you want me to believe even a tiny ounce of that.” Other times, it was like “is that your mistake, or someone else’s?” Like when she repeated the story of Tiresias and got it all twisted up and left out most of the story, towards the end of her book. Was that her own mistake, or had someone else done the leaving out first? Because she didn’t cite it, I don’t know. (I’ll have more to say about that in a later post, btw.  (And yes, that later post is the main reason I’m posting any review of this book at all.))

Big thing three. I couldn’t tell what her point was for 90% of the book, or even if she had one. This is, obviously, the biggest thing of the three. It was just a catalog of sexual iniquities, primarily pointing out how much worse women (and, in one chapter, homosexual men) have historically had it than men have. Only in the conclusion did anything resembling a point emerge. I’m going to quote two paragraphs of the conclusion now, the first because I want to, the second because it’s the part with the point in it.

Of course, men have always enjoyed a little more sexual freedom than women, and even in our ‘enlightened’ age it appears men are still ‘allowed’ to be promiscuous and women are not; we are often swamped by socially accepted images of men surrounded by adoring sexy women – James Bond being one example of many. And yet both men and women are still encouraged to select their object of desire, first and foremost, on the basis of sexual politics, in surrender to an arbitrary heterosexual ideology. You never catch James Bond with a six foot hunk hanging off his arm – there would be a public outcry.

Why is it still so difficult for us as a society to accept love in all its many different possibilities? In an ideal world there would be no attempt to indoctrinate members of society with the notion of ‘normal’. Women would not feel the need to surrender part of themselves in order to satisfy a man. Equally, men would not set out to conquer and control women.

Yeah, I totally want to see that image, of Bond out with a hunk instead of a pretty girl. That would be awesome. (Then again, Bond’s sexual predator nature is the entire reason I don’t like that franchise, so of course I would, lol.) Anyway, moving on, if this was her point, it should have been in the introduction, for one thing, which it was not. The introduction sort of meandered around a bit, but at the end it claimed “A History of Forbidden Sex examines the lives of those men and women who lived on the edge of respectable society as a result of their sexual preferences or life choices.” Maybe she meant to put that introduction on a different book? There wasn’t much focusing on lives, apart from a little talk about what it was like inside a harem. (There wasn’t time, in a book this short.)

Okay, let me back down a little from where I’ve been so far, because I’m perhaps being a little too critical. Because, as I said, this was a book so desperately in need of a good editing that it feels like it’s not a final draft. Which probably means that if I look up the publisher, I’ll likely find that it’s a self- or vanity press, in which case, it’s really not fair to tear it apart too far. Because it’s not that bad. As a next-to-last draft, it’s not bad. It just needs its point worked more thoroughly into the text, needs a bibliography, and a good editor. Oh, and it desperately needs a better title.

Obviously, since it’s already been published, it won’t get any of those things, I’m just trying to be a bit fair.

Okay, the horizontal bar marks the end of the pre-written post.  Just tacking on a bit at the end here before I post it.  I wanted to get this posted as soon as possible ’cause I really want to get that Tiresias post up, ’cause I like it, but since it’s a follow-up to this one, this one had to go up first.  (Naturally.)

Also, I’m kind of proud of myself.  I finally managed to get off my lazy butt and go swimming last night.  (Yay!)  And my muscles aren’t too terribly sore today.  Possibly because I didn’t do as much lap swimming as I meant to, because my back started hurting, so I ended up trying to do stretches in the hopes of making it calm down, only to make it worse, but…well, at least I was out of the house, expending (some) calories, and not staring at any kind of screen.  So, that’s got to be better than what I normally do.


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