Confessions of a Bookaholic: Brains

Book Reviews- Brains and Neuroscience

I have a thing with learning more about how the brain works,. I love reading books about weird medical industry outliers, and I love reading neuroscience stuff about how neurons fire and misfire and are mapped and re-maped, and I love love LOVE when the an author can write about how and when the right brain and left brain come together (see: Proust review below). It’s hard to find a really engaging armchair neuroscience book, and I’m not saying that one of the following six is that book, but you will most likely enjoy one of the first three.

(Unless you’re a psychopath, the only read The Psychopath Inside, and start a club with author James Fallon (nope, not Jim, James) because he’s kind of a psychopath too. Oh, sorry, should have given a pre-emptive “spoiler alert!” there. My bad.)

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne (5 stars). I loved this book in every way. Hanagarne’s love of books, his struggles with Tourette’s, his thoughts about family and faith. This felt so real, so honest, and so completely refreshing, despite having some truly difficult pieces about Tourette’s and the causes, treatment options, and prognosis. Hanagarne works in my home library, the main branch of the Salt Lake City library, and he discusses lecture series that I actually attended and describes the glorious architecture, AND IT IS STUNNING! All sky-high windows and open spaces and modern sculpture, it’s one of my favorite places downtown. So, immediately I loved this book more than I probably should have (after 2 pages) because of the location in my heart-home. However, I also deeply appreciate Hanagarne’s respect for his faith, but also his hefty dose of reality about it. The Mormon church has some truly beautiful doctrine (that is not in the very famous, bawdy musical), but there is also a lot of weird cultural stuff, some tied to doctrine, some that isn’t but is pervasive in Mormon areas. It’s a tricky line to walk, but he handles it perfectly without lampooning the church or the faithful, and without trying to convert the reader. (I had zero idea going in that the author worked in one of my favorite buildings or that he was Mormon, and his love for my home and his treatment of my religion was such a delightful surprise and certainly contributed to how much I loved this book.) Hanagarne focuses on his Tourette’s diagnosis and how it affects his life, some of the treatments options he tried, ranging from truly bizarre to extra scientific, and the ways he learned to deal with repetitive short-circuiting of his brain. (Technically this book is more memoir than scientific brain treatise, but my blog, my rules, so whatever.)

Proust was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer (5 stars). I have wanted a book like this for a VERY long time, Lehrer writes eight essays about groundbreaking artists and their work as it is reflected in neurology principles, most of which weren’t discovered and principle-ized until well after the artist’s work was published (and, more likely, the artist was long dead and gone). He discusses four novelists and their topics of writing (Walt Whitman, feeling; George Eliot, freedom; Marcel Proust, memory; and Virginia Woolf, self) and how each of those topics have direct neurological roots that Whitman, Eliot, Proust and Woolf clearly define and explain long before scientists discovered the proof. The other four chapters discuss similar principles of how we as a consumer experience art (Auguste Escoffier’s amazing epicurean creations; Paul Cezanne’s use of color and form and light; Igor Stravinsky’s music; and Gertrude Stein’s use of language) and then goes on to define the neurological process that allows us to enjoy and crave umami, or how a Stravinksy symphony affects our brain differently than Wagner or Beethoven. This bridge of art and science was glorious in every way and I think I must own this book to flip back through my favorite sections again and again.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport (4 stars). For the most part, I really loved this. I think Newport has a lot of really great suggestions and research. His rant about social media got me a little “meh”…never does he provide as an option the idea that you limit your social media consumption through a specific strategy, it’s either all-consuming or you delete your accounts. So, that was annoying. (Example: I log out of all social media apps when I’m done scrolling so I never receive notifications to distract me. Is it a pain to have to sign in? Not really, it takes 2 seconds. Not receiving push notifications from Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/Whatever has GREATLY reduced my attachment to and time wasting through social media. Win-win.

Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks (3 stars). I like Oliver Sacks, his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” was pretty great; but this book is….it’s meh. He seems to prance over some of the deeper causes of hallucinations, he refers to larger segments he’s written about this case or that patient or this syndrome/disease/whatever in another book–he seriously cross references his own books a TON–and his definition of hallucinations ranges from drug or alcohol-induced episodes, to concussions, to allergic reactions, to legitimate deeply rooted psychological issues, to nightmares and PTSD. It’s…it’s just too broad without enough deep science to back it up. Not my fave.

Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, by Dan Hurley (3 stars). This was okay, but not great. The basic premise surrounds whether or not there are activities or exercises we can do to strengthen our brains and make us smarter. The short answer: yes, to a degree. Things that make your brain run smoother and faster can increase it’s capacity: listening to classical music stimulates neurons, but only a little. Getting enough sleep and plenty of exercise strengthens your neuro-network, but only a little. Brain-stimulating puzzles and play can increase your capacity, but only a little. In combination, you may be able to increase your brain power a little bit, but only by a few IQ points. Now. If you have had some kind of brain trauma there is a lot more room for improvement, healing, and growth, but no one wants to wish crippling brain trauma on a person in order to prove “get smart quick” schemes.

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, by James Fallon (2 stars). The first two thirds of this book I quite enjoyed, I mean, it’s an interesting twist to have an actual psychopathic neuroscientist (who is in denial about his psychopathic brain) be writing a book about psychopaths and their behavior. The last third, however, Fallon begins to really drill down into his own behavior and psychopathic tendencies, his mania and relationship patterns….and, he’s a SUPER ass. Writing a memoir reflecting on all those things makes him more of an ass, not less of one. It was almost unreadable, to be honest. If you’re looking for a better book about psychopaths, I’d recommend Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test” instead.

Other Brainy Recommendations:

More books about brains and neuroscience.
All book review posts on ye olde blog(e).


Confessions of a Bookaholic: Revolutionary War America

Book Reviews-Revolutionary War

A few biographies of the movers and shakers of the founding of the United States. I have kind of a crush on feminist Burr and I want Abigail Adams to be my mother, or my aunt, or whatever. Also, I need to find a really great biography of Jefferson, because even though he’s kind of a cad, I feel a fair biography may help me appreciate some of his finer moments and contributions. Any recommendations?

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow (5 stars). For thinking I knew all about George Washington…uh…I really didn’t know that much. Granted, in Chernow’s biography–all 927 pages of it!!–it’s pretty easy to not know a LOT of things he brings up. Like, I didn’t realize that Washington spent YEARS away from Mt. Vernon while commanding the Revolutionary army, I didn’t realize he never had children of his own, I didn’t realize how much of the office of the President he shaped according to his own style and not necessarily the dictates of the Constitution or Congress. And those are all BIG things! I did know that he owned slaves, but did not realize how wishy-washy he was about it, swinging from accepting and even promoting slavery, to abhorring it but not emancipating his slaves, keeping families together, but at what cost!? Upon his death, Washington’s slaves were freed (a provision he wrote in a new will in the last 6 months of his long life), but those of his wife were not, and many of the two groups were married to each other, so how does THAT work? Washington was a great man in so many ways, and so deeply flawed in so many others. I think Chernow does a good job of showing us both sides, and also walking the fine line between Washington and Jefferson and their separate warring political factions. It was really interesting to read more about how the country was founded and the government and office of the President created, especially in these SUPER tumultuous Presidential times (RIP 2016).

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow (5 stars). Doesn’t hurt to have a super famous Broadway musical about A-Ham to make the whole world suddenly interested in the American Revolution again. I really enjoyed this book, Chernow makes the dense history and political pieces easy to digest, and Hamilton himself is such a fascinating character with so many flaws and lucky breaks and charisma to keep him above water. Recommended. (I also read Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin Manual Miranda (4 stars), who was inspired to start writing couplets and bits about Hamilton (which became Hamilton) after reading this Chernow biography on the beach in Mexico. I knew LMM and I could be friends, but knowing we are the kind of friends who take a dense non-fiction on vacation? Yep, he’s my people.)

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg (3 stars). Aaron Burr is infamous and most of us only kind of know why. I mean, yes, he killed Hamilton, was a womanizer (WHAT OF THE REVOLUTIONARY LEADERS WASN’T!?) and was Vice Pres. to Jefferson, and he was eventually tried for treason, but…why? Isenberg attempts to redefine Burr’s life and put it back in a positive light, however she falls short because it seems she is so obsessed with him she can’t give space to his negative qualities. (Also? Anyone who thinks the Founding Father’s were without fault is wrong, they were good men, but all were deeply flawed in one way or another and to lose those flaws does them (and us) a huge disservice.) Things I admire about Aaron Burr: he was a raging feminist, both in his relationships with his wife Theodosia and daughter Theodosia, and in his practice as an attorney. He admired Rousseau and Mary Wollstoncraft and insisted on extensive education for his daughter and autonomy for his wife; he was one of the few attorneys in New York City who would argue divorce cases for unhappy women. Great, ok, so…why is he considered a traitor? I think this is the series of events, honestly, Isenberg spent a lot of time telling us what didn’t happen, and a lot less on the actual facts. So, it seems that Jefferson and others had it out for him? And set him up in a series of faulty trials? With wishy-washy circumstantial evidence? He was apparently raising an army to invade New Orleans? And Mexico? But no army was even found and his confiscated property turned up cases of books, not cases of guns? And something about him leading a rebellion from a fancy rich estate….but the evidence shows he was never actually there? So, let’s bring in a hundred character witnesses to talk badly about Burr to convince the jury? Which didn’t work either? So, Jefferson et al tried to change the due process laws to get around the wishy-washy evidence? Or alter the evidence to make it more condemning? But they got caught?! So Burr was not indicted but his reputation was forever tarnished? Listening to it made it a little confusing to keep that all straight. Probably 3.5 stars, really. Minus 1.5 stars for Isenberg, not for Burr.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis (3 stars). This isn’t quite a biography, although there is a lot of information about Jefferson’s often opposing ideas, meaning, he opposes his own ideas, holding opposites as truths on a number of different topics (hence: Sphinx). I am thisclose to ranking it two stars, especially for all the patriarchal “benevolent” slavery-racism that the AUTHOR excuses as “okay” because of the time period. But then also includes sections where Jefferson opposes slavery…? Doesn’t match up. I truly think Jefferson believed he wasn’t a racist because he was generally kind to his slaves and didn’t beat them personally…and because he wanted the Native Americans to be moved west of the Mississippi to leave their lands for white European settlers, but didn’t promote their wholesale slaughter. So, just because he’s “more moral” than some Southern plantation owners doesn’t mean he’s actually a moral person. (He’d probably start the hashtag #NotAllSlaveOwners and see zero irony in it.) Jefferson was a deeply troubled person, and yes, he had some brilliant political insights and his library was the basis of the Library of Congress and that is all fine and good…but I like him far less now than I did prior to reading this book, and that is okay too.

John Adams, by David McCullough (5 stars). An excellent, engaging biography detailing the founding of the United States, the players, their actions, the political stage, etc. Additionally, McCullough captures Adams as a family man, his dedication to his wife and children (and grand children), despite a lot of time away from there for his political commissions. I will say, the biography I read of Abigail Adams does a lot more to capture both her and John’s marriage, family, and private life, I’m glad I had that background to fill in some of the gaps from this book in that area. Overall, however, it does feel like McCullough is very comprehensive, describing world politics and the historic upheaval of Adams’ long life–he lived longer than any other president, I believe–and the changes throughout his lifetime. Excellent–but lengthy–read.

Abigail Adams, by Woody Holton (5 stars). Prior to this biography I didn’t know much about Abigail Adams, feminist, investor, philanthropist, stateswoman, and wife of President John Adams. I loved learning more about her through her writing, letters to her husband, friends, and children, and the documents that illustrate how progressive she was for her time, going against convention and also at times against British and American law in order to assert her own independence, both as a woman, wife, and businesswoman. I also love that in her will (which is one of those things that goes against convention and a little against the law) she leaves money and property to her female relatives, but not to any males. Women in her era could hardly own property or have money or investments of their own, and she made darn sure that her female posterity had access to whatever means she could possibly make their own. Dah, I love her.

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, by Cokie Roberts (2 stars). The layout of this book ruined it for me. The author includes a lot of great content, the snippets of information we have about many women in the early, tumultuous days of the American republic. However, I don’t care for the organization or the frequent commentary from the author. It was hard to follow the characters and what they did in the larger framework of the war chronology (as opposed to what I would have preferred, a small story about a woman and what she did throughout the war, then the next, and the next. Spreading them out with a paragraph here and another one 15 pages later made it hard for me to get into any of the stories.) I’d definitely recommend Woody Holton’s biography on Abigail Adams before this. Even Chernow’s biography on George Washington has a ton of info about Martha and other leading ladies of the day with whom he corresponded. Skip this.


Confessions of a Bookaholic: Sciencey Things

Book ReviewsScience, Evolution, and DNA

If you’ve been around here for a minute you know that I’m kiiiinda of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. If you’re new, well, welcome; I’m Harriet, I’m kind of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. Why do I love this stuff so much? Well, there are a couple of reasons besides the fact that it’s AWESOME and FASCINATING and the science of genetics is ONLY THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCK OF ALL LIVING AND FORMERLY LIVING THINGS!!!! Ahem.

  • Reason One: When I was 3 my family was part of a large study on genetics to determine a) if melanoma skin cancer had a genetic marker, and b) if our family had it (yes it is, and yes we do). My brother was diagnosed with skin cancer at that time, he was 13. We have talked about this my entire life.
  • Reason Two: I am an identical twin, there is another person on the planet with my exact genome and frighteningly similar dental records and fingerprints. Many MANY genetic studies focus on identical twins.
  • Reason Three: In 7th grade when we learned about Mendel and his genetic studies with peas, we also learned the basic grid for dominant and recessive genes. For twelve year olds, the easiest trait to study is eye color, it’s pretty straight forward and most people have either brown or blue eyes; both my parents have blue eyes, according to the grid, I should also have blue eyes. All my siblings have blue eyes with the same needs for contacts and glasses, but my twin and I have green eyes, quite green, actually, with no need for corrective lenses. We also are the only blonde’s in a family of medium-brown haired people, and (pink and purple dye aside) we are SUPER blonde. And we’re considerably shorter than the rest of them too. Frankly, if I didn’t have my Dad’s nose in the center of my face and the exact same eyebrows as my brothers and sister I’d be asking some questions!

I’ve been fascinated with genetics and the laws of inheritance my entire life, it actually seems pretty obvious (to me) that I would become an armchair evolutionary scientist/geneticist as an adult. And now, a few book reviews (if you’re going to skip the rest of this post because science isn’t your thing–that’s fine, you weirdo–perhaps just read the next three paragraphs first, they were my three favorites in this round of reading.

The Evolution of Everything, by Matt Ridley (5 stars). I loved this book so much, and it is so much more than Darwin and the different parts of a cell. Ridley explains evolution and economics and how these vast systems are formed and tweaked and improved over time, whether that system is your eyeball, or your government, or a world religion, or banking, or the basis of trade, or the necessary vs unnecessary parts of your DNA. Ridley covers bits of all of that, plus a dozen more topics, and how Darwin and other science-minded thinkers predicted how and why certain evolutions would be successful and others would, eventually, fail. And, for a huge nerd like me, Ridley was funny. I laughed out loud a number of times at his jokes or satire or one-liners, all with a delightfully nerdy twist. Gah, this book was right up my alley!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (5 stars). In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from a very aggressive form of cervical cancer, she was a poor black woman from Baltimore who went to Johns Hopkins for treatment, the doctors took a sample of her tumor and sent it to the lab for an experiment, and those cells–HeLa–became the first human cells to survive for more than a few weeks in petrie dishes…in fact, they are STILL alive, multiplying at astonishing rates, and HeLa is one of most widely used raw materials for scientific research, leading to breakthroughs in treatments for dozens (if not hundreds) of diseases and the first DNA genetic mapping projects. But, Henrietta’s family had no idea this research was going on, no idea their mother’s cells were collected or being used, and no idea that large pharma and biomedical companies were making millions and billions of dollars selling test tubes of her cells to scientists and researchers all over the world. In fact, Henrietta’s family cannot afford basic medical care. So, where is the social responsibility? What are the answers? How do you muddle through all that very gray area? I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read this book, I absolutely loved it. I loved the mix of biography and research science, the combination of social commentary and presentation of facts. I loved that by the end of the book I felt like I had a lot of information to form an opinion on using human tissue for medical research without informing the human herself what type of research, and without compensating that person or their family for any monetary gains on that research… but I still don’t know. I know more about genetic mapping and scientific processes, but I still am torn between the two sides of it (to benefit society as a whole (a good thing), or to somehow take care of the person’s DNA/identity/specific genetic make-up). There is SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT!

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, by Bryan Sykes (3 stars). I snatched this book up in a used book store specifically to learn more about Mitochondrial DNA, tiny little packets of genes inside a cell that are passed down the maternal line with a mutation only once in every 10,000 years or so. What does this mean? It means that my siblings and I all share the exact same Mitochondrial DNA as my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. My brothers did not pass that little M-DNA packet to their children as it is only in the egg, not the sperm; M-DNA is not swished around when a sperm and egg combine (X and Y chromosomes recombine, but M-DNA does not) as there is no sperm-M-DNA to recombine with, so that little packet of history remains practically identical for thousands of years. One of my favorite chapters was how using this brand-new testing (in the 1990s’) for M-DNA from bones helped determine the final resting place of the Russian Romanov family who were murdered in 1918 and left in a hole in the Siberian forest. By extracting DNA from the bones, and then testing for mitochondrial DNA, scientists discovered that there was, indeed, a family. A mother and 3 daughters, the father of those 3 daughters, and 3 unrelated adults (doctor and 2 servants). By testing living relatives of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (meaning, living descendants of her SISTER), and testing other living relatives descended from Tsar Nicholas’ MOTHER (Maria/Dagmar of Denmark), they were able to determine that yes, this family was the Romanovs. ISN’T THAT SO FASCINATING! I think it’s fascinating. The idea that I am carrying history from my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, back hundreds of generations, sends my feminist heart all a flutter. So, I *loved* learning more about M-DNA, how it was discovered, the studies and testing that have happened in my lifetime to figure out what exactly it is and how we can trace it. However, “The Seven Daughters of Eve” as a title is SUPER misleading, because Sykes is really only talking about the seven matriarchs whose M-DNA has populated the majority of EUROPE. Throughout the world, there are just about 30 different “clans” of M-DNA that have survived. So, that was annoying. The very last chapter Sykes talks a little more about those other lines and how they may have spread. But the vast majority of his book is about the M-DNA of the 7 women who, anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 years ago, were the head of surviving dynastic maternal lines which have thrived and are currently found in the vast majority of Europeans (and sometimes, only in Europeans).

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (5 stars). Part mini biography of several different scientists who discovered genes and DNA and the means of inheritance, including all my favorites. Part current history of what scientists and geneticists continue to figure out on sequencing and altering genes and DNA. And part a treatise on the ethics of genetics and altering DNA and using stem cells to enhance or edit the genetic code of humans. GAH! I LOVED THIS SO MUCH! Mukherjee is a fantastic writer, and even with all the deep and heavy science stuff he kept my attention (I also happen to love the details of DNA and the means of inheritance, so.)

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott (4 stars). I tend to devour any and all books about Charles Darwin, his theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, in general, the revolutionary era of scientific advancement in which he lived (Fun fact: Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day, The Origin of the Species was published right before the Civil War). This book covers the history of Darwin’s thoughts, but starting way back with Aristotle and going right on down to Darwin’s grandfather (a famous zoologist in England), Darwin’s contemporaries, and Darwin himself. Stott spends time detailing scientists and naturalists from around the world and throughout history who have discovered, independently, some aspect of Darwin’s theory. I loved reading about these individuals from ancient Greece, ancient Iraq, Egypt, Europe, and South America as they solidified their ideas on where plants and animals come from, and how humans fit into that story.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (3 stars). In many ways this is a modern re-writing of The Origin of the Species with additional information about the important advances in evolutionary science since Darwin’s time (1860’s), you know, things like genes, DNA, and all the tiny little bits that make up living organisms. Dawkins goes in depth on all of these little bits, jumping from species to species to give examples and more examples that show, in the end, how much more alike we are than different.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2011, Edited by Mary Roach (3 stars). I picked this up super cheap from a used book sale, mostly because of Mary Roach’s name on the cover. Turns out, none of these essays were written by her, she just selected them (?). Anyway, some of my favorite authors did have contributions, and I liked reading about science-y things without any other unifying thread than they were fascinating. Excellent read.

The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, by Robin Marantz Henig (2 stars). Gregor Mendel, a monk in the mid 1800’s, was the father of modern genetics, meaning, he figured out that there were dominant and recessive genes and the patterns of inheritance, by studying and crossing garden peas for years while making copious notes. Unfortunately, after he died his successor as Abbot at the monastery burned all of his notebooks and papers. The very few letters he sent that were kept, and his one scientific paper explaining his experiments, are almost all that survives. He died without the scientific world in Europe having any idea who he was, and it wasn’t until several decades later that three scientists studying evolution “re-discovered” his paper and brought his experiments to light. Anyway, so that’s Mendel. This biography…is not great. Because there is so little primary documentation that has survived, everything is second or third hand. But Henig tried to make this read like a novel…which was REALLY irritating. ALSO, in the epilogue, she talks about how she has very little interest in genetics, specifically her own genetics, and doesn’t think it’s a worthwhile pursuit to learn so much about genes and chromosomes and this branch of science. Uh…then maybe don’t spend your time researching and writing a non-fiction book about it!? Ugh.

The Descent of Man, by Charles Darwin (4 stars) My nerdy heart loves Darwin so much. Now, this is a BEHEMOTH of a book, Darwin covers what seems like every single species in their evolutionary process. From birds and insects to large mammals and humans. The detail is…well, honestly, it’s a little excruciating to read through for fun. But I love that Darwin went to such extensive lengths to prove his points, spent so much time getting all the details and proofs lined up for his audience, to help them understand his process, the process of the earth’s changes and evolution from primordial soup to thousands of distinct species. And, what hasn’t changed between us. Sigh. I just love Darwin so much. Hashtag: Nerd.

Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough, by Rebecca Stott (3 stars). When I picked this up I thought it would be a lot more about Darwin’s notes, correspondence, and discoveries regarding the barnacle (which he studied daily for 8 years, writing 4 volumes on it, and studying, describing, and analyzing these pin head sized creatures honed his chops for writing “The Origin of the Species.” Did you know that ancient barnacles were hermaphrodites, had both male and female parts and were often self-fertilizing. Over time, the male parts became their own male creature, often just a sac of sperm, often embedded inside female organisms. More time passed and the males added additional parts to become more than just sperms, and could be found outside the female, living as parasites, but far more independent creatures than their ancient ancestors. SO INTERESTING! There is an ancient Greek myth about how we all began as hermaphrodites, and the Gods split us into two distinct sexes, which is why we spend our lives searching for our other half. Even Christian theology states that male and female were joined into one (Adam) before God created the female (Eve) as a distinct and separate human. Gah, science is so awesome. Religion isn’t bad either. 😉 Okay, so my criticism: Stott does cover the barnacle and Darwin’s interactions and labors over it extensively, but she also throws in a TON of biographical information about Darwin, his family, his friends, their families, world history that only slightly relates (the siege of Sebastopol, anyone?) to the topic matter at hand. I don’t mind the biographic details, but it was not what I was expecting.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (4 stars). I wavered between three and four stars, but truly, it’s not Diamond’s fault that I read this book 20 years too late, and after also reading a half-dozen other books that argue the same premise, often with wittier anecdotes, a little extra dose of humor. But, Diamond was most likely the earliest researchers on the theories of evolution of civilizations around the world based on the evolution of plants, agriculture, farming, domestication of animals, which are primarily based on geography, climate, and the availability of wild flora and fauna with which to domesticate. Some parts of the world (Eurasia) had more to work with than others (Australia) and, therefore, “evolved” to “civilized” communities faster. I mean, if you can call densely-populated people who live side-by-side with disease-ridden animals and generally ruin their environment and try to colonize everywhere else “civilized.” Ahem. Additionally, Diamond discusses the evolution of language, technology, and art in various parts of the world, as advanced after significant improvements of food and shelter were mastered.


Confession of a Bookaholic: Stories from World War I & World War II

There are approximately twenty-hundred-million books written about World war I and World War II, this is just a handful of them, but it’s what I’ve been reading lately.

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World War I

Dead Wake: Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (5 stars). I love Erik Larson’s writing style, his non-fiction reads in many ways like a sensational novel (doesn’t hurt that he selects gripping stories and the researches the hell out of them to find the stories that we care about). I knew very little about the Lusitania–a huge passenger cruiser that was sunk by German U-boats as it came into harbor in Great Britain–or really about the finer points of World War I history. Larson made this ship come alive for me, and placed within the greater war theater helped a lot of disparate threads of WWI come together for me, especially the isolationist role of the United States and, finally, America joining the Allies in the war.

One of Ours, by Willa Cather (4 stars). Willa Cather is a beautiful writer, so many of her descriptions and dialogue brought up ALL the feels. Claude is a young farmer from Nebraska who feels like he has always been waiting for his life to begin, and despite his best efforts, has not made much headway. He joins the army in WWI and it isn’t until he is working and fighting with a battalion of soldiers, marching across France and watching his friends die, that he truly starts to feel like he is home, like he belongs. This is not a fast-paced battle-heavy book, but a rolling story of a young man in his second coming of age. Winner of the Pulitzer.

Additional recommended WWI reading: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

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World War II

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson (4 stars). There are easily ten thousand books about World War II, however, reading about the slow-burn rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi party, and then the violent overtake of the German government…it’s been chilling to learn more about that in the weeks immediately after the 2016 election. I am not comparing the incoming US administration to Hitler’s Third Reich, however the similarities in the rise of fascism and the decline of basic human rights for all people are hard to miss. This book is told from the perspective of the family of the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930’s, Dodd and his wife are fairly conservative, middle-of-the-road people and their reactions to the changes in Berlin, the lack of believable information coming out of Germany, and the steady takeover of a hate-fueled new government are, well, frightening. I think if I’d read this 6 months ago I would have given it 3 stars. However, 2 weeks post-election, I can’t not award any less than four stars.

Note: this review was written BEFORE there were literal Nazi flags and Heil Trump salutes happening on the regular…I don’t have the political energy to rewrite this to somehow make the analogy that the rise of white supremacy and an American Nazi party is currently in all (red) areas of the country and how we should FREAKING PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT HAPPENED IN GERMANY IN THE 1930s AND THE FUCKING OUTCOME OF THAT POLITICAL DISASTER! Ok, I have a little energy. But seriously, you should all read this book. An American family initially siding with Hitler and seeing his points (??!) and then realizing how full of supremacy-fascist shit he was, and begging the rest of America to BELIEVE WHAT THEY SAW IN THE NEWS about this dangerous Trump Hitler Trump & Hitler guys. Ok. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (4 stars). Throughout this book I kept thinking of “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson (which I loved) and it made me like it even more. Not that there is really any similarities outside of stories about British people during the London bombing raids of WWII. I think the author has nailed some witty dialogue and characters, and I liked how the different components were woven together without too much jarring as you jump from story to story. I would probably give this 3.5 stars, but I bumped it up to 4 because of the humor in the dialogue, humor that the British narrator perfectly nailed in the audiobook. The little dry one-liners with an English accent? Perfection.

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (3 stars). Four teenager (or young adults) thrown together during WWII as they flee the advancing Soviet forces, each chapter told from the perspective of one of them. The good news is they are together early on in the book, the bad news is one is ridiculously unpalatable (Alfred), and the other three carry secrets that, despite the chapter being told from inside their head, they refuse to even think about, though their burdens dictate every single choice. I appreciate learning more about a little-known WWII tragedy, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff a massive refugee ship that went down in just a few minutes, killing an estimated 9,000 passengers. I appreciate Sepetys detailing that maritime disaster and putting a new face on the WWII narrative, that of the Europeans caught between the clashing armies of Hitler and Stalin.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson (3 stars). Meh. I wanted to love this, but I didn’t. I felt like the jumping around in time absolutely did not work for me, the jumping through various families and three (or four!) generations was confusing and left me feeling discombobulated and disappointed. I really didn’t care much for any of the characters. I’m sure this was intentional, but I hated the little repeating phrases and descriptions that were 40 and 50 pages apart; I think this was something to do with the reincarnation theme that Atkinson writes about in Life After Life, but I didn’t like it here, this book is not nearly as well done as her first, and frankly, you could easily skip.

Additional recommended WWII reading:

Unbroken, by Laura Hildenbrand (READ THIS!)
The Hiding Place, by Corie Ten Boom (about standing up and doing the right thing, read it!)
Lest Innocent Blood by Shed, by Philip Paul Hallie (about protecting refugees, read it!)


Confessions of a Bookaholic: Women of the Supreme Court

Book ReviewsWomen of theSupreme Court (1)

Over the last month or three I have managed to read at least one book (usually more) by or about every one of the women who have sat on the bench for the United States Supreme Court. It has been so fascinating to see how their stories intersect, how they are each unique to themselves, and how they worked together and with their fellow Justices to maintain the Supreme law of the land. In case you’re not up on your Lady Justices: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a former Arizona Senator and the first woman on the Supreme Court, she sat on the bench from 1981 – 2006; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a law professor at both Rutgers and Columbia, and ACLU advocate who has sat on the court since 1993; and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina from The Bronx who was nominated to the bench in 2009 and is the first Hispanic Justice; Justice Elena Kagan was nominated in 2010 and sworn in later that year, however 5+ years later, there is still only one biography on her, and it’s not very good. Without further ado, the reviews, grouped by Justice, who are listed by seniority on the Court.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice, by Joan Biskupic (4 stars). Of the ones I’ve read, this is definitely the best biography on O’Connor. She served as a Supreme Court Justice for 25 years (nominated by Reagan in 1981), often as the swing vote between the four conservative and four liberal Justices (at least, until Clinton was able to nominate a few more liberals, ahem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg). For the youngest and first woman on the Court, her vote counted as the decider in many major cases, starting her very first term. However, what was most interesting to me was to see her opinions and voting change throughout her tenure on the Court. She began as super conservative, but her final two or three years on the court she was a lot more liberal and her reasoning more expansive to protect minorities, women, and other disenfranchised people (including criminals and those being held in military prisons without charge or trial for terrorist activities). I know my own journey towards “woke-ness” has taken some time, starting small and moving outward from there. It’s somehow helpful for me to realize that without being taught from the beginning to, you know, view all people as equal no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or economic class, that it truly is a process for us to understand the ramifications to groups of people who are dissimilar to ourselves. O’Connor retired in 2006 to care for her ailing husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. I often wonder what would have happened to her voting patterns and her voice had she continued on the Court as a liberal jurist.

The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, by Sandra Day O’Connor (4 stars). I had initially thought this was some kind of autobiography, it is not, well, not entirely. There are a few personal stories and anecdotes, but primarily this book is Justice O’Connor detailing the history of the court, the major decisions and docket trends under different Chief Justices, and how the court has maintained and shifted over the last 170 years. Some of the history bits were super fascinating, some were a little dry, however there is a section on women, women’s suffrage, early feminists, and the twisting and frustrating road towards gender equality. I would award that section 8 gold stars if I could! As it was, that section bumped this from 3 stars to 4 stars. I wish Sandra Day O’Connor would write a whole book about feminism and her unique role within gender equality law (from a conservative SCOTUS nominee, to a centrist Justice), I’d be all over that.

Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, by Sandra Day O’Connor (2 stars). This memoir about growing up on a large ranch in the dry, dry country of Arizona and New Mexico. This is primarily about ranch life, the cowboys and ranch hands, their backgrounds, talking care of the animals and the land, the struggle of O’Connor’s parents thru their lives to survive and become financially independent. The Day patriarch was tough, stubborn,  and unmoving, and there are no apologies for him in this book, just a nodding of heads that “that’s just his way.” Honestly, it’s pretty dry and O’Connor doesn’t give much insight into her future life as a Supreme Court Justice. But, you will learn about life on a massive ranch. So, there’s that.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmen and Shanna Knizhnik (5 stars). The last few years I have become increasingly interested in RBG, this biography was an excellent introduction and overview of her career, her personal life, and some of the monumental decisions over the last 25 years she has been a Supreme Court justice, both ones she agreed with and–most interestingly–the ones where she dissented. I loved reading more about how she fought for gender equality, and how she continues to address sexism and gender discrimination in the United States. Fascinating book!

Raising the Bar: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, by Amy Leigh Campbell and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (4 stars). Not exactly a biography, but also much more than a list of cases and briefs, this short book details the theory and careful strategy of RBG and she layered case upon case to define sexual discrimination and also to outlaw it through policy and statute at the highest court in the United States. Campbell goes through her time at the ACLU and the details of each case, including commentary from RBG’s private papers (housed in the Library of Congress) to show how long-seeing and calculated RBG’s legal arguments were in order to sway an overly conservative court. I knew the basics of most of the cases mentioned in this book, however this is the first place I’ve read so many of the details from correspondence to/from RBG regarding the statue and law, as well as her opinions re: the political climate for women during the 1970’s. Excellent read (and also, a lot of court law and procedure, I had to look up a couple of terms to make sure I was understanding what was going on).

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (3 stars). I waffled between 3 and 4 stars, this is not the memoir I was hoping for. It is, instead, a collection of writings, briefs, official SCOTUS opinions, and transcripts of speeches from RBG throughout her professional life, with a little biographical information in the chapter headings and a few pages of photos. Some of the writing is fairly dense, official opinions and briefs from the Supreme Court are not exactly light reading. The span of RBG’s career is covered, her work at the ACLU and her methodical and carefully planned assault on gender discrimination laws in the United States. It’s all there, but it is there in very official and professional terms and writing. A few of the speeches and addresses are a little less formal, especially the few excerpts from people who worked with and for RBG, notably her husband who contributes a few fabulous remarks, and President Clinton, who nominated RBG to SCOTUS in 1993.

O’Connor & Ginsburg:

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, by Linda Hirshman (3 stars). The first half of this dual biography keeps O’Connor and Ginsburg’s lives fairly separate, which makes sense. RBG was a professor, then judge, in Washington DC and SOC was a legislator and judge in Arizona. There wasn’t much cross-over of their personal lives, and frankly, their political backgrounds are far from similar. Hirshman clearly likes RBG more than SOC, and that bias shows throughout the book, which is annoying. Hirshman also takes the time to comment on RBGs size (diminutive, petite, tiny, pocket-sized, etc) in almost every chapter, and that got REAL old real fast. Stop it. My favorite chapters in this book were towards the end when RBG and SOC are actually both on the bench, debating over cases and, oftentimes, taking opposing sides. Near the end of SOC’s career as a Justice she started to take her swing vote to the liberal side in several key cases for women’s rights and gender equality, but Hirshman doesn’t spend much time discussing the background of WHY SOC’s swing vote started to swing left.

Sonia Sotomayor:

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor (4 stars). I really loved this book, learning more about Sotomayor and the pathways and steps she took towards her dream of becoming a federal judge. I love the stylistic differences between a biography and an autobiography, and while a biography may give a wider and more complete picture, the autobiography is the memories of a lived experience, and that is so fascinating to me!

Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, by Joan Biskupic (3.5 stars). Minus one full star for quoting so much of Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, during the first half of the book. However, the last third of the book, detailing Sotomayor’s cases and time in the Supreme Court, was fascinating. I doubt a first-person account would go into the kind of back-and-forth and arguments that happened during various cases, and being able to read about those details as well as reactions from other politicians and society at large brought to life some of the race-related cases of the Supreme Court for me. Sotomayor is a proponent of affirmative action and increasing access and opportunity for students of color, and she is not afraid to stand by those opinions even if she is the only dissenting Justice. I loved reading that fire and grit in her personality. I also loved reading about other Latino/as who made advances in politics and through the Judicial system, and the support or not for them and why. Justice Clarence Thomas (SCOTUS) says that the only way to stop discriminating by race is to stop discriminating by race. Sotomayor argues that the only way to stop racial discrimination is to talk widely and openly about the issues, to bring them up constantly and, with enough reminding, the policy makers and the citizens can recognize their own biases and make conscious steps to remove them. After watching so much racial tension over the last few years, I tend to think Sotomayor is correct. Excellent read.

Elena Kagan:

Elena Kagan: A Biography, by Meg Greene (2 stars). In my quest to read a biography or autobiography on each of the women on the Supreme Court this is the *only* book I could find on Elena Kagan. The author repeatedly states that there is very little public information on Kagan, she doesn’t do interviews, and her private papers are still private. With that, this biography does have quite a bit of background information on Kagan, with lots of interviews or statements from people who worked with her in her various positions prior to being a Supreme Court Justice. However, there are also a NUMBER of typos, a couple of instances where Greene gets her facts mixed up a little (stating Kagan graduated from Harvard for her undergrad, despite an entire chapter about her time at Princeton as an undergrad), and in order to fill some pages Greene spends a lot of time discussing New York City real estate, or the career of Justice Thurgood Marshall, or the history of Harvard Law School. Kagan has been a Justice for several years, I am surprised that, to date, this is still the only biography of her.

History of SCOTUS:

Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court, by Sandra Day O’Connor (2 stars).  I really wanted to love this, but what I hoped would be a dishy book of anecdotes and stories was actually a textbook-like history of the Supreme Court, including personal but not entirely interesting details of almost every Justice who has served on the bench. It was drrryyyyy. Sandra Day O’Connor’s rational, logical, linear brain is on fine display, and I can see how she was an excellent addition to the Court with her super analytical and precise thinking and explaining. However, even in the chapter that began with her talking about how so many people asked her how it was to be the first woman in SCOTUS, she spent less than 5 sentences on herself and instead detailed the “firsts” of all the other Justices, all of them men. Yawn. Unless you are a legal fiend, and/or a SCOTUS history freak, you could probably skip this book entirely.

Other Recommendations:

Madam Secretary: A Memoir, by Madeleine Albright (I love Madeleine Albright SO MUCH! Her story to rise from local political fundraising to Secretary of State is so inspiring!)

Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi (The first woman to serve as a judge in Iran prior to the Revolution, this tells her story of becoming a judge, and how her life changed–politically and personally–after the takeover by the anti-judge, anti-woman Islamic Republic.)

For more SCOTUS goodness, here’s my Goodreads shelf on the topic. But, honestly, you’ve just read every review on there, I have not read anything about the male Justices, nor do I intend to do so anytime soon Hashtag: Feminism.