Book Reviews: Guys and Womanhood, Grown-ups and The Child’s Child, and Tripods!

Different kinds of people and their different ways of living are among my main interests, and I’ve been reading about a variety of demographics in the past two months.

The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor

I remember really enjoying this book of short stories the first time I read it, several years ago.  This time around, I didn’t like it as much–too many of the stories spin off into excessive absurdity in a way that kind of stops being funny to me.  Still, it has some really great lines, some vivid, some silly, and some philosophical:

It was one of those ugly and treacherous springs in the Midwest, when winter refuses to quit, like a big surly drunk who heads for home and then staggers back for another round and a few more songs that everyone has heard before.

“Try dessert substitutes, such as erasers. A plate of erasers served on a slice of sponge contains less than two calories.”

After all, he cared for her, she was his wife, and when your wife has an affair, don’t you want it to be a good one, a great experience for her?

And the overall premise, that guys (males) sometimes struggle with their identity and that it isn’t the same struggle for all of them, is a fine one.  I enjoyed hearing from some of these guys again.

The Long Shadow by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson

This book summarizes a longitudinal study of almost 800 people who started first grade in Baltimore public schools in 1982 and were interviewed for the last time at age 28.

It’s the kind of book that can get dull if you just read it straight through–lots of statistics–so I read it a bit at a time over most of this year, after receiving it last Christmas.  I’m the data manager of a longitudinal study here in Pittsburgh that is similar in many ways (here’s a day in my life), so I was interested in how their findings compare to ours, and I especially pored over Appendix B with the specifics of how they conducted the study.  However, the Baltimore study focused specifically on economic status and education: How do parents’ income, type of work, and education influence the opportunities their children have and the directions they take in their adult lives?  A particularly interesting section was about low-income students’ earnest efforts to get more education (usually through community college) as they struggle with many distracting needs.  There’s also a good analysis of the effect of a stable relationship (not necessarily marriage) on economic status.  The study began just after Baltimore’s industrial economy collapsed, making success more elusive for blue-collar workers; they found strong evidence that white men are more successful than African-Americans or women with the same lower-class background and minimal education, largely because of networking.  Interesting stuff!

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

The Bible teaches many things about the role of women, drawn from an evolving culture over the course of a few thousand years.  What would it be like to follow all of those teachings?  That’s what this Christian writer set out to do, in reaction to many present-day movements advocating “Biblical womanhood” by which they seem to mean 1950s gender roles.  I was very interested to find out what she learned.

Unfortunately, I was turned off by the first page, on which she says, “After 368 days without a haircut, I looked like a character from Willow, or more precisely, a character from Willow in the process of getting eaten by a character from Spinal Tap.”  This is followed by Before and After photos, which show me that . . . she looked like she grew her hair out.  It looked fine.  It was still parted the same way and neatly brushed, just a few inches longer.  What’s the big deal?!

I’m glad I kept reading, because there were some very entertaining anecdotes and some very interesting historical explanations in this book.  However, I kept returning to the impression that Rachel Held Evans is very set in her worldview as a modern, small-town, middle-American young woman attached to her personal style and spoiled by conveniences that had enabled her to reach age 30 without learning real cooking or housekeeping skills.  To some extent she’s aware of her privilege and tries to be open-minded.  She truly did learn how to cook and clean, and sounds like she plans to continue doing so after finishing the book.  But a lot of it has this tone of, “OMG can you believe I wore this incredibly frumpy outfit in public?!” when she’s wearing something that, um, I would totally wear without thinking twice about it unless it’s the time of week when passersby in my neighborhood say, “Good Shabbos!” to me if I’m dressed that way (not that I want to avoid that–I think it’s nice, and say it back to them–but it makes me think about how I look) just as I’ll go out wearing a nursing camisole as my shirt without worrying that I might “single-handedly ruin a boy’s relationship with God,” and I’m sorry about this run-on sentence, but I kept thinking that Ms. Evans just needs to get out more.

Anyway, I’m disappointed that she didn’t actually try to construct a lifestyle based on all the Bible’s teachings about womanhood and live that lifestyle for a full year.  Instead, she set a theme for each month, like Obedience or Purity, and tried out one or more related rules, often in a way that didn’t even last the whole month.  I think she would have learned more by challenging herself more, and longer.

Still, I did get some insights from the book.  I love the way her husband started responding to any achievement on her part by high-fiving her and saying, “Woman of Valor!”  The concluding hike in the forest was deeply meaningful.  Her ten resolutions for habits to carry into subsequent years are reasonable improvements on the typical American lifestyle.  And I agree that the Bible’s stories of women are valuable and instructive to us today but do not set up “one right way to be a woman.”  Overall, I feel this book was well worth reading once.

What the Grown-ups Were Doing by Michele Hanson

This memoir of growing up Jewish in 1950s British suburbia seems to have been written for readers who know the author as an adult.  It evokes her childhood and adolescence in vivid detail–and I always enjoy that sort of vicarious experience–but it doesn’t seem to have any real point, any reason for having been written, unless perhaps you’ve always wondered what Michele’s childhood was like.  It was sort of interesting to compare to what I’ve read or heard about the same time period as experienced by non-Jews in Britain and by American Jews.  This would be an okay book to pick up if you’re traveling alone and wish you had a companion who would tell you all about her childhood.

The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine

Grace and her brother Andrew inherit their grandmother’s large house and move into it.  Then Andrew’s boyfriend moves in, too, but Grace doesn’t like him.  Her life gets more and more screwed up, and then she realizes she’s pregnant.  She escapes into reading the manuscript of a novel that wasn’t published in 1951 because of its frank depiction of an unwed mother and her gay brother; as the reader, you are then reading the manuscript, too.  Eventually you get back to Grace’s story, which has to get even more screwed up in order to be shocking in the 21st century.  There are obvious parallels between the story of the past and the story of the present, but they don’t really weave together in any meaningful way.

I would much rather have just read the story from the past.  Maud and John are real characters struggling to live real lives in an English village, from 1929 through the 1940s, estranged from the rest of their family because of Maud’s decision to raise the baby born when she was just 15 years old and John’s decision to pose as her husband to protect her from societal shunning and protect his teaching career from any questions about his sexuality.  His ongoing relationship with Bertie, a man of questionable morality and class, threatens their lives, but John can’t resist his attraction.  Maud’s gradual transition from free-thinking teenager to stodgy, anxious bitch is very interesting and believable, too.

Unfortunately, rather than just making a book out of that story, Vine put it into a cheap frame and attempted to make this a commentary on how societal attitudes have changed.  It doesn’t work.  Grace is supposed to be a 21st-century young woman but doesn’t seem to know it and doesn’t seem to be a real person with a full range of interests and friends; she merely plays her role, which is very disappointing in a first-person narrator.  The one-night stand that leads to her pregnancy is supposed to be shocking because it breaks a couple of taboos that still exist, but it ends up being shocking just because it doesn’t make any sense for those two characters suddenly to have sex together.

Barbara Vine is a pen name used for some of the novels written by my very favorite mystery author, Ruth Rendell.  To get rid of the bad taste left in my mind by The Child’s Child, I immediately read another of her books that I knew was a good one!

Shake Hands Forever by Ruth Rendell

Although my first reading of this book was just over a year ago, by the time I reviewed it last December I found that I couldn’t remember anything at all beyond the first chapter!  I think this was because I read it when my daughter was a newborn and I still had to sit up and have a light on in order to coordinate breastfeeding, so I did a lot of my reading in the middle of the night and didn’t necessarily remember it well.  I just knew it had a lot of twists and a totally unexpected ending.

Yes!  This is an excellently twisty mystery!  That first chapter puts you in an early 1960s London train station with a dour mother-in-law who’s nastily pleased that her son is late to meet her because she’ll never forgive him for leaving his first wife and child in order to marry Angela.  Heading for his village on the train, she’s thinking gleefully about what a terrible housekeeper Angela is and how self-righteous she’ll feel, and then it’s just perfect that Angela hasn’t come to meet them in the car like she should.  They find the house eerily immaculate, except for Angela lying strangled on her bed.  Inspector Wexford and his team find the house wiped completely clean of fingerprints except for one perfect handprint on the outside of the bathtub.

I could barely put this book down!  Highly recommended.

The Price of Three Stories by Hiroko Fujita and Fran Stallings

Full disclosure: Fran Stallings is my mother.  She is a professional storyteller who has worked extensively with her friend Hiroko Fujita, a storyteller from Japan.  This is one of several books they’ve published together to bring Japanese stories to American readers and vice versa.  (I reviewed Folktales from the Japanese Countryside here.)

In this book are 51 stories for adults, some of them a bit racy or scary.  They are traditional folktales from Fukushima Prefecture, never before published in English.  Most of them are very short, but don’t let that fool you–each one has a bit of wit or wisdom to share.  Annotations explain some Japanese customs that must be understood for the stories to make sense.

I would have enjoyed this book even if it had no family connection, and I plan to read it many times!

The Tripod Trilogy by John Christopher

I read The White Mountains followed by The City of Gold and Lead followed by The Pool of Fire as bedtime stories for my ten-year-old Nicholas throughout August.  We both enjoyed this story of a bunch of teenage boys playing a vital role in the overthrow of aliens who had enslaved Earth and were planning something even worse.  My dad read me these books when I was around the same age, and I remembered them pretty well.  The aliens appear to be enormous three-legged metal spiders, the Tripods, who stride across the landscape and preside at important human events.  In the annual Capping ceremony, 14-year-old kids are lifted up in the Tripod’s tentacle and come back with their heads shaved and a metal mesh Cap bonded to their skulls, and then they become happy adults who never question the proper way of life–unless they go wrong and become Vagrants.  A man who appears to be a Vagrant, but is really wearing a false Cap, recruits Will to join the resistance and infiltrate the Tripods’ city, finding out what the creatures inside those metal walking machines are like and learning their weaknesses.

This is a great story!  A classic plot is filled out with interesting sci-fi details and some serious moral questions.  The prose is more awkward than I remembered, with some clunky sentences and a lot of places where pronouns are overused so it’s hard to figure out who did what to which object.  Earth is saved by males only; females are barely mentioned except for one girl who’s almost a full character for just a few chapters.  The aliens also seem to be all males.  These things get on our nerves, but we enjoyed the story anyway–and now Nicholas is in on a long-running family joke about The Curse of the Skloodzi. 🙂

At Home by Bill Bryson

This is a rambling history of how we English-speaking people developed the kind of homes in which we live now.  It’s packed with facts and highly entertaining stories, all pulled together into a loose structure of exploring one of Bryson’s homes (a 19th-century parsonage in rural England) one room at a time.  Did you know that dining rooms are a relatively recent concept?  Did you know that many Victorians were made violently ill by their wallpaper?  Have you heard the story of Fonthill Abbey?  (I had, but I’m grateful to find it in written form after 23 years of relying on my memory of the funniest story from my college architectural history class.)  I’m not quite finished reading this book, and I’m kind of dreading getting to the end because it’s been so much fun and I’m not sure what to read next!

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3 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Guys and Womanhood, Grown-ups and The Child’s Child, and Tripods!

  1. Pingback: Some Old and Some New: September Book Reviews | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Pingback: Reading My Way into 2021 | The Earthling's Handbook

  3. Pingback: 28 Book Reviews! | The Earthling's Handbook

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