Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien

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Review 2.28

 

In the tradition of The Glass Castle and A Child Called It, this memoir by Maude Julien is filled with such heartbreaking and harrowing detail that on more than one occasion I had to put it down and walk away. How such people come to abuse their children, and how such children find the strength to survive, are questions often explored in autobiographies and memoirs. But not since Tara Westover’s Educated, which I read and reviewed last year, have I encountered two people less deserving of the word “parent”.

It is obvious from the beginning chapters of The Only Girl in the World that Maude’s father is severely mentally ill. Of course that is just a polite term for “bleeding batshit crazy”, which is closer to the actual definition of Monsieur Julien’s affliction. Years before his daughter was born, he “adopted” a five year old girl from a family that was unable to provide for her. This young girl was groomed in the worst possible sentence of the world; she was indoctrinated to believe that her purpose on Earth was to bear a daughter for her adopted father. She went on to marry Mr. Julien, and bore his child in 1952.

This was a hard read. The entire stomach-twisting saga is narrated in a matter-of-fact manner, as if such things are standard practice. Sadly, the child abuse seen in the introduction it is but the merest inkling of the horrors to come. From the time she was able to walk and speak, Maude Julien was isolated away from the rest of the world in a manor home in Northern France where she was subjected to torture, molestation, starvation, sleep-deprivation, and a childhood deprived of love and affection from any other human.

Thankfully, Maude was born with a deep sense of compassion. Her love for animals and her connection to nature offered some consolation from the rigors of daily life. The second half of the memoir, in which Maude begins engaging in defiance and plans for escape, are much easier to read than the first half. The countless scenes of a small girl being treated with such cruel neglect were often too much, especially combined the rather deadpan narrative work by Elisabeth Rodgers in the audiobook edition. As I said earlier, I often had to pause and resume the story at a later time.

One thing that remains unexplained in The Only Girl in the World is exactly who was Monsieur Julien? With enough money it is said that one is never crazy, only eccentric, and that must have been the only thing keeping him from a mental asylum. But where he was getting all of this money from is never fully explained. I would have liked a little more detail on exactly how someone comes to the belief that their urine has magical properties, but it is more likely that the author simply doesn’t know.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Only Girl in the World here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers and is available here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Review 2.24

An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.

Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt’s throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt’s second female pharaoh. [Source]

It becomes clear quite early on in The Woman Who Would Be King that author Kara Cooney is personally outraged by the near erasure of Egyptian King Hatshepsut from the annals of history. And well she should be; the only reason that Egyptologists were able to recover any traces of Hatshepsut’s reign at all is that she built so profusely during her reign that her successors were simply incapable of finding and destroying all of her iconography.

Every book lover still mourning the loss of the Library at Alexandria can probably sympathize.

Still, precious little information has survived as to what Hatshepsut’s personal life was like, or what her motivations were for seizing the throne. Cooney explains this in the introduction, and admits that large areas of her biography on Hatshepsut’s life are based, by necessity, on conjecture. And it’s true that she resorts to using the word “perhaps” at an irritatingly frequent pace. We simply cannot know the circumstances under which Hatshepsut was crowned King. What we’re left with is speculation, which Cooney uses to fill in the gaps in the historical record as best she can.

There are a few less savory aspects of life in ancient Egypt that cannot be denied. Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II, and give birth to at least one daughter. Inbreeding was standard practice within royal bloodlines at the time, and she may have been the product of inbreeding herself. Also, far from the gilded surfaces and cool stone palaces we picture from films, life in this time period was short and hard. Disease was as common as sand, and the royalty in the palace would not have been immune from lice, boils, malaria, and worms. Cooney accepts these facts as further proof of Hatshepsut’s exceptionalism and, in truth any woman who survived into adulthood and through childbirth in ancient Egypt was most definitely worthy of high praise. And Hatshepsut managed to do it all while holding a kingdom together.

After her death, all of Hatshepsut’s statues and icons were torn down, and her face was replaced in many other reliefs. The exact reason for this systematic destruction is just one of a thousand things we will never know about Hatshepsut’s reign. I enjoyed that Cooney did not take an extreme feminist slant as this stage, as she noticeably did in the introduction. While it is incredibly likely that Hatshepsut’s successors were threatened by her status as a female king, it may have had more to do with the shaky line of succession left in the new King Thutmose III, and his desire to avoid civil war that led to Hatshepsut.

I’ve always loved stories about ancient Egypt. Growing up, Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game was one of my favorite childhood books. However, this biography was accessible to anyone, regardless of prior knowledge of Egyptian society. I was familiar with a lot of it, but ended up learning a ton more.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Woman Who Would Be King here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by the author and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (2017)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Review 2.18

 

What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future—all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame. Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long. [Source]

Last year I read Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, which asked whether or not animals are capable of demonstrating selflessness and empathy towards themselves and towards us. I wasn’t a huge fan of that book, partially because anyone who has spent even a small amount of time observing the animal world will tell you that the answer is a resounding “Duh”.

I was unaware at the time that there is a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of altruism in the animal kingdom. For decades the idea of true animal awareness was laughed out of universities and scientific journals. Man, it seems, needs to maintain a moral superiority over morality itself.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal begins by lambasting his fellow scientists in a highly informative and highly enjoyable tirade against modern testing methods. He lists study after study designed to test the difference in cognitive abilities between toddlers and apes that failed, not due a fault of intelligence on behalf of the ape, but by unfair testing standards. For example, toddlers were tested while sitting on their mothers lap in a warm and comfortable environment, with scientists there to reassure them. The apes were alone in a steel cage, with no explanation of the test or comfort from the testers. Until recent years it was considered unprofessional even to give personal names to the “test subjects”.

De Waal is a passionate advocate for animal rights. After thoroughly beating his colleagues about the head in the first part of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he then begins giving case study after case study of animals that not only rivaled our own intelligence, but often surpassed it.

My favorite thing about this book is that it is not ape-centric. We have long ago learned to recognize a thinking mind behind the eyes of a chimpanzee, an orangutan, or a gorilla. But what about a crow? Any pet owner will gush about how smart their dog is, but is can their intelligence be measured using any kind of objective scale that we understand? Cats, elephants, dolphins, and monkeys all get their place in this book, as well as less “traditionally” intelligent animal such as cuttlefish. I loved the section on the octopus, which is my favorite animal to show off to my science students.

in The Bonobo and the Atheist, I felt that de Waal struggled to stay on topic. He would give a few interesting anecdotes about the animal world, and then pause for a discussion on medieval art, or the rise of atheism. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is more tightly edited, and jumps merrily from subject to subject while maintaining the central theme that animals are capable of more than we ever thought possible.

I love animals. I love learning interesting things about animals. If you love learning interesting things about animals, you will enjoy this book.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Sean Runnette and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

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Review 2.17

 

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake of record proportions struck off the coast of Indonesia, triggering a series of tsunamis that swept through the Indian Ocean, ultimately killing more than 200,000 people in fourteen countries.

Two hundred thousand people.

Our brains aren’t quite capable of making sense of it. Two hundred thousand is simply a very large number, and our minds try to view it as such. It’s difficult to imagine two hundred thousand individual voices, with hopes and families and dreams and fears, being simultaneously snuffed out by a wall of water on a cloudless day.

Wave tells one of those stories. On the day of the tsunamis, Sonali Deraniyagala lost both her parents, her husband, and both her sons to the wave. She herself was swept two miles inland after being separated from her family. In her memoir, Deraniyagala gives voice to the pain, confusion, and grief that she has felt since the wave, and asks whether or not it’s possible to truly recover from such a loss.

I will say this for the author, she is brutally, unflinching honest. The rawness of her pain was almost unbearable to listen to, and I don’t know if I would have been able to get through a print copy of the book. Wave is a swirling maelstrom of grief. Deraniyagala is frank about her contemplation of suicide, her descent into binge drinking, her wish for madness to relieve her of the continued burden of life. Given the circumstances, one could expect little different. This was a book that made me want to hug my husband a little closer at night. I paused on one occasion to call my mom. Wave works as a reminder to never take our happiness for granted.

This is not a story of grief and healing in the wake of loss, it is an outpouring of grief from a woman who has been struck by unfathomable sorrow. It’s difficult to criticize a book like this without looking like an asshole. After all, this person is baring her soul to the world, who am I to deign even to reply? That said, Deraniyagala was difficult to connect with. She is self-centered and self-absorbed. At no point does Deraniyagala ever extend her grief to include any of the other two hundred thousand people who died that day. She never bothers to thank the friends and family who rallied to support her. She doesn’t seem to recognize that not everyone who suffered that day could then take the next seven years to recover, grieve, travel, and go whale-watching.

Deraniyagala mentions that actually, at some point in Wave. The enormity of her loss is simply too great, and people react defensively when faced with such uncomprehending sadness. Listening to Wave was difficult and imperfect and gut-wrenchingly painful, and that is what makes stories like this so important.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Wave here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Hannah Curtis and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016)

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Review 2.15

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more. 

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. [Source]

If you’re lucky, outside your window you will be able to see at least one tree. What kind of tree is it? How old is it? When was the last time you really paid any attention at all to the goings on of this tree?

In LabGirl, noted biogeologist Hope Jahren asks us to take a closer look at the plants that share our Earth. In part, her memoir is a love letter to the grasses, flowers, and trees which are so necessary to life on this planet and yet are so often overlooked or disregarded. These sections, in which Jahren speaks with an enraptured voice on the many fascinating aspects of the botanical world, are what works about LabGirl.

From the introduction, Jahren makes the case that anyone who observes something interesting about the natural world is officially a scientist. Children are born scientists, exploring and cataloging their environment with every sense they possess. It’s only as we get older that science becomes an intimidating, closed-off world with its own secret rules and language. Girls in particular often feel discouraged when entering STEM fields because they are given little respect or acknowledgement. Jahren’s struggles trying to scratch out a niche for herself in the scientific community are some of the funniest and more infuriating part of this book.

What doesn’t work so well is Bill. Bill is Jahren’s closest friend, valued colleague, and general right-hand man. A large portion of the novel is given over to how important Bill is, what a good friend he is, and how Jahren just couldn’t survive without him. The problem was I just didn’t get it. I could not for the life of me figure out why she is so enamored by Bill. Far be it from me to say that two friends are mismatched, but I almost felt like Jahren forces my hand by focusing so much of her narrative on how impossibly wonderful this person is. It started to feel less like a working relationship between scientists and more like two codependent people clinging together for no other reason than that they know no other way to exist.

I’ve always loved science in a “stars are pretty” kind of way, though I readily admit that the technical aspects go right over my head. I would recommend LabGirl for anyone interested learning more about plants and the scientists who study them.

A quick note on the Audible version. The audio book for LabGirl is narrated by the author, and makes for an uneven listening experience. Jahren is obviously going to be personally moved when detailing her own past experiences, but one more than one occasion she sounds as if she is going to burst into tears. During other sections when she is waxing romantic about her relationship with her colleague, her voice takes on a soporific effect that had me nodding off. A large portion of the book deals with Jahren’s ongoing battle with bipolar disorder, so perhaps the tone was an intentional choice made by the author and publisher. Either way, I found it jarring.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find LabGirl here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.  The Audible version is narrated by the author and can be downloaded here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann (2009)

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Review 2.13

In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization–which he dubbed Z–existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett’s fate, & the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. [Source]

For centuries, the Amazon jungle has represented the some of the greatest examples of man’s hubris. Countless explorers, adventurers, cartographers, and scientists have ventured grandly into this impenetrable rainforest never to be seen again.  The Lost City of Z is a biography of one such individual, a man whose obsession with finding the ruins of an advanced civilization in the Amazon consumed both his personal and professional life. In his debut novel author David Grann attempts to retrace Fawcett’s path, both historically using letters and journals and literally by flying to Brazil and embarking on a trek through the Amazonian region.

Grann’s novel will draw inevitable comparison to Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God, which I read and reviewed last year. The difference is that while Monkey God is the story of a region and all the countless expeditions that had failed, City of Z is the more personal story of one man and his restless desire to find a hidden culture. Both novels were highly successful in convincing this reader never to visit the Amazon rainforest. One of the phrases that I enjoyed from The Lost City of Z described the area as a “counterfeit paradise”. The lush vegetation and abundant life of the jungle conceals a surprisingly lack of food, and what wildlife there is seems specifically designed to inflict the most discomfort possible before killing you.

While there are numerous disgusting descriptions scattered through this novel, it still a straightforward biography rather than an exciting book of exploration. Grann refuses to speculate on or romanticize the fate of his subjects. The bulk of City of Z is a more or less straightforward account of Fawcett’s various expeditions into the Amazon and the efforts of his fellow explorers to find him after his disappearance. The reminder of the book is an interesting and occasionally humorous first-hand account of Grann’s preparations for jungle travel and his eventual attempt to retrace Fawcett’s last known trail.

While The Lost City of Z was not the thrilling adventure novel advertised by it’s book jacket, I nevertheless found myself intrigued by the story of Fawcett and his ill-fated adventures. Only in recent years, with remote satellite and lidar technology, are we even coming close to forming a definitive picture of the secrets hidden under the Amazonian canopy. Perhaps more evidence of this ancient civilization will be discovered with time.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Lost City of Z here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Mark Deakins and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!