Harriet the Bookaholic: November 2015

I’m a bit late posting this, I kept thinking I’d finish up one more book to add…but I didn’t. Between boxing up my whole life and moving it 700 miles south and then coming BACK north for the holidays and to finish up some stuff at my office…I just, well, I’m swamped. Blergh.


The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (4 stars). The world is limping along after a massive nuclear holocaust, pockets of humanity survive and depend on subjugating women with viable ovaries, impregnating them, and confiscating any babies who are not deformed or “shredders.” In hyper-conservative religious Gilead, Offred tells her story. I loved this.I was not terribly horrified by the premise that women were used for their ovaries and classified and ranked in society. I mean, civilizations around the world have done that for thousands of years. Take Henry VIII, he wanted a son so badly he kept killing his wives until one produced an heir. Marie Antoinette and Catherine The Great’s places as queen/empress were not assured until they produced an heir to the throne. I guess I expected to be horrified, and in many ways I was intrigued and sometimes disgusted, but it wasn’t ever truly shocking. Controlling women and their bodies has been part of our history forever, it only makes sense that in a post-apocalyptic world that would continue. Excellent read, so many things to think about.

Dance of the Dissident Daughter, by Sue Monk Kidd (3 stars). I have very mixed opinions about this book. Overall, I really didn’t like it. BUT, I also underlined and starred a number of passages. So, there’s that. I appreciate some of Monk Kidd’s revelations as she becomes a feminist-thinking woman, but I also was super frustrated by her process and actions. Written in 1992 some of those pieces are–at least for me and the women I associate with–just before my time and I have difficulty relating. But some of her opinions just came across as way extreme to me, and I consider myself a liberal-thinking feminist. Some great one-liners and small paragraphs, but overall, meh.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan; Feminism is for Everybody, by bell hooks.

Russian History & the Romanov Family

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (4 stars). Catherine I–Catherine the Great–is seen as both a terrible tyrant and a benevolent empress. The truth is probably a little of both. This incredibly strong woman came to Russia as a young teenager, married the weak and indecisive heir to the Russian throne (Peter III), but still had to contend with the jealous and terrible Elizabeth, Russian Empress, for almost 2 decades before her husband became Tsar. At that point, Catherine decided to rule the country in her own right instead of leave the vast resources of the Russian empire to her completely inept husband. She ruled for decades, keeping hold of Russia through numerous wars and skirmishes with Prussia and the Turks, internal rebellion, and continued to expand the Russian empire while Great Britain lost the American colonies and the French monarchy and aristocracy were put to death via the guillotine. She introduced the smallpox vaccine, introduced religious tolerance, and nourished friendships and political alliances around Europe. She was such an incredible woman…and also an autocrat monarch of a vast empire she could only hope to vaguely understand. She maintained the status quo for the millions of peasants (um, it wasn’t a good status, btw), was unable to free the serf, although she did introduce serf reform that was quickly quashed by the land-owning noble-classes, and had little concept of how her autocratic rule was viewed in the provinces. Fascinating woman. Fascinating biography.

Additional Recommended Reading: Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie; Maria Theresa, by Edward Crankshaw; Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Amber Room, by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy (2 stars). This is such a fascinating subject: a room made entirely of panels of amber from the Baltic sea, more precious than gold and much more fragile. This room was part of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg (yep, that Catherine), locations of millions of pieces of art collected for centuries. When the Nazi’s stormed the city during World War II the museum curators feverishly packed, stored, and hid as much art as they could…but the Amber Room proved too difficult to move and was left behind. The Nazi’s pried the amber panels from the walls and packed them off to a castle in Germany…and that is where the trail dies out. Did the panels arrive? Were they sent elsewhere? Did the Russians reclaim them and hide them again? Was the room destroyed by fire or carelessness? If you’re a White Collar fan, the contents of the Amber Room are a continuing theme and obsession for Neal Caffrey and take up the bulk of seasons one and two; the music box is from the Amber Room. So…fascinating subject, but the authors were SUUUUPER boring, and I like research-heavy books non-fiction books! Skip this, watch White Collar instead.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr.

Russian Literature

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol (4 stars). There is a lot to digest here, and if you aren’t paying close attention and at least nominally familiar with Russian aristocracy in the 1800’s you may get a little lost. Chichikov is a young man trying to make it big in a society where landowners with serfs are the only true way to wealth. The more serfs you have, the wealthier you are. Chichikov devises a plan where he collects serfs on paper–people who have died but are still considered alive by the state due to a once-a-decade census.  As Chichikov collects these dead souls through not-entirely-ethical means, his status rises and he is viewed more and more as a prominent member of society. And then, of course, his plan falls to pieces: all that glitters is not gold.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy (3 stars). This is a short book, Tolstoy explores the hurt, anxiety, frustration, and despair surrounding Ivan Ilych as he lays dying. There is some gorgeous imagery and tone, and you can’t help but want to hang out with Ivan Ilych (always called by his full name) and talk to him for the afternoon, hoping to give him a little hope and happiness.

Additional Recommended Reading: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.

Civil War History

Ulysses S. Grant, by Owen Wister (3 stars). This is a pretty short biography of Grant, too short. I wanted a lot more detail on every part of his life. Thanks to Melanie‘s recommendation, have added a proper Grant biography to The List.

Additional Recommended Reading: Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara; Grant and Twain, by Mark Perry.

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Boone Hall Plantation, Charleston, South Carolina

Boone Hall

Earlier this fall I had a conference on the east coast and as a treat to myself I decided to go a little early and spend a few days in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston has been on my list for ages, I’ve only heard wonderful things about the charm, the weather, the food, and the ambiance. I was only in town for two and a half days, but I managed to squeeze in plenty of mini adventures. I knew I wanted to tour an old plantation; there are a couple of large ones operating as farms and historical tourist destinations in and around Charleston. I read reviews from other bloggers (Janssen, Holly, and Kristin), and looked up where they were in relation to my hotel, but the deciding factor that made me choose Boone Hall was this gorgeous avenue of ancient oak trees leading up to the main house; three-quarters of a mile, lined with 100 trees.


I mean….come on. This isn’t real, right?!


The house is kind of your typical Georgian-columned antebellum affair, no photos allowed inside, minimal opportunity for touring the inside. But again, I did not come to see the house. (Actually, that’s only partially true. Once upon a time I was an architecture major and this is the exact kind of building that I would have gone ga-ga over. In fact, I think I designed an antebellum plantation house for a class project once. That being said, we were only allowed in the formal dining room, the library, and a screened in side-porch. The rest of the house was strictly off limits. I would have loved to see the kitchen and some of the upstairs bedrooms.)


One of probably 15 remaining slave cabins on the property. Most slaves did not live in such structures, they lived in huts that were easily–and frequently–destroyed by tropical storms hitting the South Carolina coast. These brick cabins were reserved for the most high-ranking slaves (if that is even a thing) who worked in the house or did labor most essential to the immediate comfort and prestige of the Master. Field slaves lived in shacks and huts closer to the fields.

I took a ride around the plantation farm lands, they have a thriving local produce business in a number of different crops. The plantation also employs many local people to farm, give tours, and help maintain the property. My tour guide’s grandfather was a slave at Boone Hall and he said a number of the other plantation employees had ancestors who were slaves on this property. I am still thinking about that concept. As a white person from the Wild Wild West I certainly have very little perspective or right to an opinion about the moral ethics of this, but it struck me as something that should require additional thought. And I’ve been thinking about it for almost a month now, more so as I continued to read a number of first-person slave narratives.

In addition to the historical aspects, Boone Hall hosts a small cafe (meh), gift shop (hrmph), and number of festivals, carnivals, fairs, and other events throughout the year to celebrate various holidays, crop harvests, and other pieces of plantation life.


I enjoyed my little meander around the plantation and the historical lessons from various guides, but what I truly came for were those gorgeous oak trees, huge and stately, dripping in Spanish moss.


If I ever turn up missing, the first place you should probably look is the branches of these trees. Chances are more than likely that I’ve run away from Real Life and am camping out in their arms waiting for the storm to pass. (Seriously, SO swoony!)

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Harriet the Bookaholic: September 2015

So many great books this month! The Lemon Tree is perhaps one of the better books I’ve ever read, and particularly timely, I think.

The Middle East

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (5 stars). This amazing book details the history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict by following two separate families, one an Arab family who was driven from their historical home in Palestine, and another of Jewish refugees from Bulgaria who settled in that same house in the newly formed country of Israel. The families are both fighting for the same thing–their rights to a home and historical homeland. When that homeland is the same for opposing factions, and governments and rebel fighters and “domestic terrorists” (of the Israeli or Palestinian variety) are all in on the action, and it’s motivated by religion and war and all sorts of ancient feuding and anger and tug-of-war, well, frankly, you get the mess that is the middle east. This taught me so much about the history of the region and the people who are fighting for it, about refugees and their plights and fears and lives. Read this. Read it now.

The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer (4 stars). Isaac is a Jewish-Iranian jeweler during the reign of the Shah and the subsequent revolution. Because of his success and wealth (and ties to important individuals in the Shah’s government) he is targeted by the Revolutionary Guards. This is his story, and the story of his wife and child, and their extended family. In Iran during and after the Revolution one person’s relationships with the former regime could (and did) mean trouble for the entire family. I devoured this book in a day and a half, such a wonderful writer and the different point of views of narration–from a wealthy Jewish jeweler, to a child, to a aristocratic woman losing everything important to her–bring so many pieces to life in a 3-dimensional way. Recommended.

Additional Recommended Reading: Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi; The Butterfly Mosque, by Willow Wilson.

Slavery & Racism:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (4 stars). I love Twain’s dialogue, and I cannot get over how Huck, a mostly uneducated kid, thinks through all these enormous topics like god and religion, racism and slavery, and parenting and society, and then comes to his own determination based on all the logical facts he can grasp. I love that. I think all humans should be better about using Huck’s mentality: people are people, things are things, they should not be confused. You need people, you don’t need things. Also, Tom Sawyer almost ruined the ending of this for me. He is so determined to use Jim and his escape to freedom as his own personal playtime, and unfortunately Huck doesn’t ever stand up to him. I’m sure Twain uses this as some kind of “society is messed up and thinks this way, and we go along with it because it’s ‘proper’ or ‘expected’ and, in the end, this behavior makes changing the status quo impossibly difficult.”

Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, by Dorothy Sterling (4 stars). I read this when I was a kid (6th/7th grade-ish) and even though this is written or younger readers it is such a wonderful introduction to Harriet Tubman, her determination, drive, strength, and persistence in bringing slaves from the south into Pennsylvania, New York. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed (allowing escaped slaves in the northern states to be recaptured and taken back to their former Masters), she led her charges another 1,000 miles north to Canada. Harriet guided hundreds of men, women, and children to freedom, crossing back into slave territory time and time again to bring people to safety. During the Civil War she served as an army nurse, hospital administrator, scout, and front line general in South Carolina as well as organizer of the all black infantry divisions and a fierce proponent to petition Congress to grant those men equal pay with white soldiers. Called both “Moses” and “The General” she is one of the true hero’s of the 1800’s and the fight for the abolition of slavery.

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, by William and Ellen Craft (4 stars). This first-person account of a small family who escaped from the south into the Northern states, and then on to Canada and finally England is simple yet very powerful. The Crafts do not mince words on describing their hopes and dreams for freedom and it comes across so clearly and heartbreakingly beautiful, a quick read.

Oronooko, by Aphra Behn (3 stars). When I downloaded this I thought it was a first-person narrative of a black slave in the America’s. It is not. Author Aphra Behn spent some time in Suriname in the 17th century, and this story is based on her experiences, first printing in 1688. For it’s time, she shows remarkable insight on the essential human-ness of black people. She details their feelings and emotions and relationships. However, she also claims that a black slave, the African Prince Oronooko, had a straight Roman nose, straight hair, and arrived in the New World on a slave ship dressed in a snappy suit and speaking both English and French. So…there are some clear problems there. (Yes, I’m sure it’s possible that some of those things were partly true, but I just…I don’t believe this was the case in 1688.) She also has these super irritating ideas of a “noble savage,” that Christians cannot be slaves but can own them (but a black slave converting to Christianity does not equate with freedom, obviously), and that black people enjoy being slaves because their masters are so kind and they can’t possibly want anything more than a kind master. Again, for it’s time, this is all super progressive, and that third star is solely because of that fact.

Additional Recommended Reading: 12 Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.


David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (4 stars). This book touches on so many different pieces of why and how an underdog can win over a giant, or other seeming insurmountable odds. I love a good underdog story–most of us do–and Gladwell delivers in spades. In my opinion, this isn’t as great as Outliers but tackles some similar subject matter (what is it that makes one person succeed and another fail?).

Additional Recommended Reading: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell; The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande (3 stars). Gawande is one of my favorite writers, I love his ability to describe facts and difficult concepts or industries in a way that is easy to digest. That being said, I feel like this book was more personal to him than any of his others, and with that there seems to be more anecdotal fact/evidence than not. Which is fine, but it is a different kind of writing than I expected. I did appreciate that this book made me think about end of life care–partly for me, mostly for my parents–and helped me figure out some steps that I should be discussing with my spouse and my parents and siblings in order to be prepared and be able to make the best decisions possible under new, emotionally heartbreaking circumstances, whenever they show up.

Additional Recommended Reading: Complications, by Atul Gawande; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi (2 stars). Of the three books Nafisi discusses that–for her–define America I had really only read one of them, so a whole book of literary critique and analysis on books I hadn’t read or even heard of was…rough. The three books are Huck Finn, Babbit and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. (A quick check of my Goodreads friends shows that only one has read either of the latter, most don’t even have them flagged in an ambitious “To Read” pile. Shrug.) Overall, I enjoyed the section about Huck Finn, but the rest were super “meh” to me. I also realized that my love of non-fiction instead of novels made this book even more mediocre for me. I just…I don’t relate to these fictional characters the way she does, so hundreds of pages about them is not engaging for me, it feels like I’m cornered at a boring party and she’s talking and raving about people I don’t know and she doesn’t give any background information, just starts in on theories about their lives and…it gets real old real fast.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (who at least explains basic pieces of the plot and characters before she goes on to discuss a book you haven’t read).


Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (5 stars). I love this play! A very quick read, this one-act play focuses on doubt, suspicion, prejudice, and expectation. Gah, you should all read it!

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner (4 stars). I listened to Tony Kushner speak a few months ago and decided I should probably read his most famous work. I liked and appreciated it, I liked the dialogue and the imagery, I’d be really interested in seeing this performed live.

Additional Recommended Reading: A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansburry; Crime & Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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Harriet the Bookaholic: April 2015

Another month, another pile of book reviews. In addition to two books on the rulers of (and from) the Hapsburg Empire in 18th century Europe, I devoured a pile of first-person narratives on slavery in the American South and another pile of accounts of defectors from North Korea. At first glance these two topics may seem fairly separate, however the more I read accounts both of life as an American slave on the plantations of the South and human existence within North Korea’s regime–and the struggles to adjust to life outside those institutions, the more they seemed aligned in their horrors and evils as well as the difficulties to assimilate to a more democratic and free-thinking society. More to come on that, I feel. I’m still ruminating on it. (Yes, I ruminate. Like a cow. What of it?)

Also, a note: I have tried to cut this post down to, you know, something less than 3,000 words. But it just isn’t happening. That being said, each book is linked to my review on Goodreads, most of which are longer and more expansive and possibly a little rantier; you know, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

Maria Theresa & The Hapsburg Empire

Maria Theresa, by Edward Crankshaw (4 stars). Maria Theresa was one of the last rulers of Austria’s ancient House of Hapsburg and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and her territory covered vast tracts of Eastern and Central Europe including Austria, Hungary, Germany, Czech Republic (then Bohemia), and a number of other smaller provinces and districts and states. She was crowned Queen and Empress (and a bunch of other titles) in 1740 at age 23 after the death of her father, and reigned for 40 years, a contemporary with King George IICatherine the Great, and Louis XV. She led several wars, and had massive reforms enacted throughout the continent including small pox vaccines/inoculations, increased civil rights, primary education for peasants, and religious reforms. Maria Theresa had a gift for selecting men who knew more than she did on any given subject and then trusting them to help her make decisions. She brought stability to her empire in a time when most of Europe was rocked with revolution and civil war. She also gave birth to 16 children, the youngest, Maria Antonia, would become Marie Antoinette in an ill-fated marriage trying to create an alliance between France and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Crankshaw’s biography can be a little dry and textbooky, but I specifically wanted to know more about Maria Theresa and there aren’t many books about her. Crankshaw includes a lot of info about the rest of Europe, including the wars and leaders of France, England, Russia, and Prussia, and entire chapters devoted to culture, architecture, and music of Bavaria, Vienna, and Prague and the masters who came from that era (Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc), and I appreciated being able to place some of these more familiar-to-me characters into a broader historical arena.

In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa, by Justin C. Vovk (3 stars). Of Maria Theresa’s 14 surviving children five became rulers in their own right across Europe. This book follows their stories, their children, the history and political landscape of a revolutionary Europe including the French Revolution and Napoleon’s campaigns. I loved learning more about Joseph II, Maria Theresa’s successor and Holy Roman Emperor; Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor after Joseph’s death; Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma in Italy, Maria Carolina/Charlotte, Queen of Naples; and Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. I was astounded at how the children and grandchildren of Maria Theresa and their political alliances and strategic marriages eventually covered over a third of Europe. The history was fascinating and new-ish to me, I loved learning more about the different kingdom/queendoms and how they played nicely (or not) with each other. All this being said, this author needs an editor with a BIG red pen; minus two stars for lack of proper editing. Vovk always calls these five rulers “Maria Theresa’s five special children” and after the second mention of “special” in the intro I started scribbling out that particular word, it just grates on my nerves. Special? Really? Is that the best you can do? They are not a supermarket bargain!

Additional Recommended Reading: Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund.

World War II

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan (4 stars). After multiple recommendations I finally picked this up for a church book club discussion; Girls of Atomic City follows the story of a half-dozen women working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a secret city built to enrich uranium for the atomic bomb. At one time 72,000 people were living in this government compound with no idea what they were doing, no real idea the materials they were working with, and unable to discuss their work with anyone else, family and friends included. I wanted more information about the women themselves, their stories–although Kiernan conducted dozens of interviews with them, and to be fair, they were not allowed to keep diaries or journals at the time. I wanted more information about the African-American experience, families not being allowed to live together, blacks were banned from schools and dances and swimming pools, segregation all over the place with African-American’s having substantially sub-par facilities in every possible respect. There is a lot about the science and technology that went in to discovering how to produce enriched uranium and then use it to fuel the atomic bomb, and that was interesting. I also felt very little was spent on the thoughts and emotions of the characters after the bomb was dropped, which is when they finally figured out what, exactly, they had been working on creating. At most there is 2 or 3 sentences from a couple of individuals. All in all, however, I really appreciated and enjoyed this book.

Additional Recommended Reading:Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin.

North Korea

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (4 stars). The North Korean gulag are prison work camps with unimaginable conditions. North Koreans can be sentenced to years of imprisonment for stealing a bit of rice, or for making a comment in passing that one of the Dear Leader trio is perhaps not 100% divine, or any other minor offense. The conditions inside the camps, and the mortality rate of prisoners, are as bad as the worst concentrations camps during WWII. But, consider this: Auschwitz existed for three years; the North Korean prison camps have been in operation for over 50 years. Shin was born in Camp 14, his parents had been sentenced to life in the gulag after his father’s brother defected to South Korea. Shin was bred to inform on his family and his fellow prisoners, public executions were commonplace, and starvation and physical torture were a way of life. Unlike citizens outside the prison camps, Shin did not receive the indoctrination and brain washing about the Kim family; he knew nothing about the outside world (not even basic things like that the world is round). At the time of it’s publishing (2012) Shin is one of only three people to escape from a prison camp and make their way to South Korea or the West and tell their stories. Three. In 50 years. Shin is the only one who did not have previous experience outside of the camp to help him escape and survive; he was born inside it’s electric fence. His escape is remarkable, he managed to find his way to China and then to South Korea without wealthy backers, without a guide and against all possible odds. He had an incredible amount of luck on his side, which only makes me wonder how many other people with just a little less circumstantial luck have failed their attempts to escape, only to be returned to the gulag for torture and execution.

Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot (3 stars). One of the earliest memoirs of life inside North Korea, I think. Kang and his family are sentenced to the gulag/prison camp when he is 10 and remain there a decade. Kang grows up starving and malnourished, he learns to swallow salamanders and catch rats, he forms a strange type of friendship with fellow detainees, carefully trying to sort friends from informers, and his stories about the violence, deprivation, executions and lack of humanity in the camp is gut wrenching. The writing is a little choppy with some strange circular wanderings in story and chronology, so minus a star for that. Escape from Camp 14 is definitely a better book, although Kang’s experience in the gulag is perhaps a little more typical of most Koreans who were sent there for re-education/reform.

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, by Melanie Kirkpatrick (2 stars). Don’t even bother. I have a lengthier, rantier review on Goodreads, but the gist is this.  Kirkpatrick only highlights those who help North Koreans escape, not the refugees themselves or their stories. She has serious views about Christianity being the only way to help refugees, she calls children of kidnapped North Korean brides sold to Chinese men “half-and-half” (they aren’t dairy products!), and she has no qualms supporting the idea that there needs to be some kind of moral qualification before an escapee deserves help and assistance. For example, the Christians she discusses refuse to help those “with blood on their hands.” Even if, say, a prisoner is “promoted” to guard–receiving MUCH NEEDED extra food or clothing–and then follows orders that result in beatings or even execution of fellow prisoners. It’s not like the guy had any choice, and it’s not like the DPRK has EVER made a habit of teaching basic morality or decision making skills to their citizens. You follow The Party and The Kim, and everything else can send you to the gulag with no trial and no warning, for an undetermined amount of time. Ugh. I was so bugged by this. Skip this book.

Additional Recommended Reading: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick; Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim; The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

Charles Darwin

Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (4 stars). Did you know that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day? Authors Desmond and Moore incorporate a ridiculous amount of research in this book pulling from political and historical documents, vast correspondence between anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, and hundreds of newspaper articles, journal essays, research publications, and books of natural scientists around the world. They explain in detail the history of the Darwin family’s fight against slavery both in the British Empire and the America’s, they carefully lay out the political and social landscape on both sides of the Atlantic in regards to buying and selling human beings. And to exhaustive detail they point out how during the mid-19th century scientists, scholars, and theologians were debating against each other on the truth behind race, creation, humanity, and our origins. SO. FASCINATING! I also realize that at nearly 500 pages it is not for the feint of heart or the casual reader. But I absolutely loved it. A book about Darwin AND abolition?! Sign me up. And if you could manage to add a few chapters about North Korea or volcanoes that’d be perfection, thanks.

Additional Recommended Reading: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, by Adam Gopnik; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond.

American Slavery

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (5 stars) Read this book. Read it right now. There are very few first-person narratives from women who endured the tortures of slavery in the American South, Harriet Jacobs’ memoir tells the story unique to women, especially mothers, and their particular difficulty in escaping slavery and leaving their children. The plights of young women with regard to leering masters, jealous wives, and bearing half-white children who then “follow the mother” and become slaves on their white father’s plantation, sold as cattle at his whim. Harriet’s story of escape is heartbreaking, and in many ways mirrors that of Anne Frank and her family. Harriet is hidden for 7 years in a tiny garret of her grandmother’s house. She cannot stand up, she has no fresh air, no sunshine, and she does not come out. She lives above her family and children listening to them as they grow, listening to her master speculate on her whereabouts, watch her children and brother be thrown into jail for months in hopes of her returning to slavery…and she remains silent until there is a safe time for her to escape…again, SEVEN YEARS after she was in hiding. After Harriet is reunited with her children and her brother in the northern states she encounters a different type of racism, she is still viewed as less than white people and must navigate those issues, all the while worried that her master will come and drag her and her family back to the South. Seriously, read this book. Now.

Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (5 stars). I had so many feels while reading this book! Published in 1853 the language can be a little cumbersome, but after a few pages I fell right into the rhythm and descriptions. This first-person account covers Northup’s life as both as a free black man in New York, and life as a slave in Louisiana. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery, beaten savagely anytime he protested that he was, in fact, a free man of the North. Northup’s sparse style lets the reader come to their own conclusions and feelings on the subject of slavery, and I appreciate that this was a very fact-driven narrative instead of an emotional treatise. I think the only way it could have been accepted in the literary world of it’s time would have been as it was, any additional elaboration would have been viewed as adding to the truth. This is a time when the vast majority of whites didn’t think Africans and African-Americans had feelings, intellect, or emotions; that they were, in fact, no more human than cattle or pigs. I kept thinking how many people today are kidnapped or tricked into some kind of slavery, whether indentured servant, sexual worker, or otherwise. Many of those first-person stories are written in a heartbreakingly sparse style, giving fact after fact with little elaboration on how that made the victim feel. Read this book, please. So very, very moving.

The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois (4 stars). This is a collection of long-ish essays Du Bois wrote about various aspects of life for the newly emancipated slaves in the South. Their difficulties in gaining any kind of economic freedom, their utter lack of civil rights and due process, and the laws and culture in both North and South that continued to set them as less-than. This is not something to sit down and read through, but read an essay and think about it, about the education opportunities and how that affected the former slaves who were not allowed to be literate, and the newly free young people who desperately wanted to learn but had very few opportunities due to such low economic circumstances in their families lives. This was so heartbreaking, and I saw the seeds and beginnings of so many of the issues we still grapple with today.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass (4 stars). This is a very quick read/listen, but absolutely worth it. In the same vein as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I loved) this was one of the earliest books that gave the majority of free, white citizens some kind of idea that slaves may actually have their own feelings, emotions, and personalities. That they may love their children or their husbands and wives, that they may actually *want* to be free to govern their own lives and decisions. It is baffling to think that once upon a time these very basic ideas of humanity were completely absent. And, as I look at the news/media, sometimes it seems like we may not have come as far as a whole population as we like to believe.

Additional recommended reading: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela.

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Harriet the Bookaholic: January 2015

I have started out this year with a literary bang, and frankly I couldn’t be happier about it. People often ask me how I read so much, and the short answer is that I typically devote at least 2 hours a day to reading. I read during my lunch break, I listen to audiobooks while I work out, and I always read for 20-30 minutes before I go to sleep. Reading is my jam, apparently, and days where I don’t spend a chunk of time with my nose (or ear) in a book I feel…adrift. I think that’s the right word. Reading keeps me generally alert and thinking clearly and broadly throughout my day; and I don’t get mentally exhausted from reading like I do from binge watching Netflix. So, I read. I’m a nerd who reads a lot; I accepted this long ago.

I’m excited to get back to a regular, monthly post of the books I’ve read and my reactions to them. I have found lately that I’ve been reading book after book in a single category and then a few weeks later switching to another topic. So, for now, that is how I will format these posts with recommendations on other books I’ve read in each category.


Brain on Fire, by Susanah Cahalan (3 stars). I wanted to love this book, I truly did. Cahalan suddenly falls victim to a bizarre virus-thing where the body attacks the brain and she spends a month in the hospital while doctors try to figure out what is going on. I think the premise is fascinating, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not as well written as House, it’s not as medically intriguing as anything written by Atul Gawande…it just…it wasn’t enough.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman (4 stars). What do you get when you mix psychology with neuroscience, and then throw in a side of economics and physics? You get this book. It was equally informative, entertaining, and also–at times–a bit over my head (hello, physics). But, I loved the arguments that Eagleman brings up–backed by fact and experiments/case studies–about the malleability of the brain, and also about how easily damaged it can be, and the sometimes disastrous consequences.

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, by V.S. Ramachandran (3 stars). I absolutely LOVED the first half of this book; I excitedly texted people about things I learned and inserted neuroscience facts in any conversation I could. However, at almost exactly the half-way mark, Ramachandran seemed to run out of topics that he had both studied in depth or had any case work for, including viable statistics. And this is where he lost me. He spent the next 150 pages “debunking” theories that he gave very little information on, only to put forth his own theories that also included zero statistics, perhaps an anecdote, but that’s all. He takes quotes from Charles Darwin *completely* out of context (a personal pet peeve of mine), and spends 50 pages on the superiority of Indian sculpture and art. Which, fine, it’s lovely, but was certainly the weakest part of the book. A man who self-proclaims not to be very interested in, or know much about art, spends two full chapters trying to lay out 9 essential rules and laws for “good, high art.” Yet he doesn’t describe any conversations he has with artists, has zero brain scans of artists vs non-artists for comparison, and frankly, seems to know NOTHING on some of the basic premises of art, both technical and emotional. Minus two stars, Ramachandran. I went back in my personal copy of this book and wrote in large letters on page 150 “STOP! DO NOT KEEP READING! NO, I’M SERIOUS, PUT THE BOOK DOWN, NOW!”

Additional Recommended Reading: Complications, by Atul Gawande; A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink; Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman


Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric  Metaxas (5 stars). This was fascinating and wonderful, heartbreaking and hopeful; I loved it. Wilberforce was a British politician who fought his entire life to end the slave trade in the British empire and abolish the practice of slavery. He brought a bill before Parliament every year for decades before it finally got enough votes to pass. This book detailed the very worst of humanity, and also highlighted the very best kind of men and women, those who spend all their energy fighting the evil and injustice in the world. We need more people like Wilberforce and those who fought with him, perhaps now more than ever before.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (5 stars). I have heard about Uncle Tom’s Cabin for years and years but never read it; people, you all should read it!!! First of all, I should point out that the version in The King and I is not at all the story of the book; some of the characters, yes, but that’s it. Even though this was written pre-Civil War, it remains a beautiful and heartbreaking tribute to the lives of black slaves in the American south, and the white folks who oppressed or helped them. The most revolutionary part of the book at it’s publishing was that black people were–gasp!–human, they had feelings and relationships and hurts just like white people. Stowe has often been credited with writing the “spark that lit the powder keg” of the Civil War, and she has some pretty direct calls for ending slavery, for white people, especially Christians, to work diligently to help the blacks obtain an education and become members of their “civilized” society. This is such a wonderful book, I highly recommend it. (I listened to this, all 20+ hours of it, and cannot recommend that route enough.)

Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela (4 stars). I knew about 2 paragraphs about Mandela; Robben Island, political prisoner, apartheid, etc. However, I had no idea the system that both created and tried to continue apartheid in South Africa. No idea. Did you know that political “criminals” in South Africa (which is what Mandela and his freedom fighters were sent to prison for) are banned; they cannot travel, cannot speak in public, their words and photo cannot be published in any media. They are just…gone. It’s bizarre, and that system is what supported apartheid until the 1990’s. I can’t even fathom this kind of “judicial” system! Shows how much I take for granted the freedom of the press; the power of words, and the fear of words.

South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, by Nancy L. Clark and William H. Worger (4 stars). Fittingly, I read this entire textbook on Martin Luther King, Jr./Civil Rights Day, and I really appreciate how Clark and Worger set up the historical context for apartheid and the economic and social drivers that both created and cemented it into place in South Africa. I am still baffled by how prevalent racism and racial segregation and oppression was in S.A., and how recently (Blacks couldn’t vote until 1994!!) I read this after Mandela’s autobiography, and it helped me place him in better context with the history of rebellion–non-violent and violent–within S.A. and appreciate more the ending of apartheid. Recommended.

Additional Recommended Reading: A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry; Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris; Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton; The Power Of One, by Bryce Courtenay; Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

Other Topics:

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis (3 stars). Dry British humor, sarcastic, acerbic, some misogynist bullshit, of course, because this was written by a man in 1954, but a hilarious portrait of mid-century postwar life for a failing first year professor at a mediocre English college. Funny, a little fluffy, and if you are an adjunct professor you may find this a wee bit too close to home. *Read for my library’s book club.

Additional Recommended Humor Reading: The Diaries of Adam and Eve, by Mark Twain; A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson; Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

Women With Big Eyes, by Angeles Mastretta (3 stars). This collection of short stories is about dozens of “Aunts” in Puebla, Mexico and their experiences as feminists, out-of-the-20th-century-Puebla box, sexually liberated women. I enjoyed these stories, but I dind’t realize this book was just a collection of short stories without a cohesive thread, other than all the women live/lived in Puebla. Some stories are just a page long, while others are more in-depth. These women all have different stories, lives, dreams, hopes, lovers, religious affinity, and motivators but for the most part they are all saucy, vivacious, and independent. And that is the part I really liked. (Shocking. I know.) *Read for my library’s book club

Additional Recommended Reading by Latino Authors: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz; One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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