Category Archives: 3.5/5

Our Mothers’ War by Emily Yellin

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In a way, I feel very lucky to have read Our Mothers’ War. The only women I’ve had significant contact with who lived through World War II (i.e., my husband’s and my grandmothers) haven’t exactly been the most willing to talk about that time of their lives. This is most likely because three of them were teenagers; the only one who was of age is my husband’s mother’s mother. The most I’ve been able to hear of her experiences of that time came when my husband’s cousin was asking questions of a genealogical nature. Because of this, I looked forward to gaining some insight into the lives of women during those times.

The first, and longest, section of the book was about the women left behind by a soldier in their life — whether it be a son, brother, husband, or boyfriend. It discussed the sacrifices made at home to make life less horrible for the soldiers. It also quoted from a lot of the letters passed back and forth between women at home and their men at the front, which I thought was pretty sweet. My only quibble with this part of the book was that there was little mention of men who got “Dear John” letters, or of men who had someone waiting at home who brought another love home from the war. I would have liked to learn a little more about that portion of life for the Greatest Generation.

The next couple of sections worked well together. They were about women who worked during the war and about women who served in the armed forces. The part that struck me the most was about the women who served in the WAACs, the WAVES, and the other women’s military groups. Not only were they faced with resentment over the type of work the majority of them were taking (secretarial and administrative work), which caused men who held those jobs to go to the front, but they faced unfair and false rumors about their behavior.

The most egregious example of this discrimination was an article published in a newspaper at the time that women going into the armed forces had sexual education training and were given condoms. The rumor was false; women working for the military were given no such education and were not given any sort of birth control. In fact, Yellin tells us, the rate of STDs among these women was almost zero, and the pregnancy rate was much lower than that of the women back home. The vast majority of the pregnancies that happened were the result of husbands and wives serving near each other. Yet these women faced comments from servicemen and Americans at home such as, “women who are serving, I have no use for them. They’re all prostitutes, in my opinion”. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be considered a prostitute for wanting to serve your country.

The last sections of the book talk about smaller groups of women in America and discusses the problems they faced (or, in one case, the problems they caused). African-American, Japanese-American, and Jewish-American women faced significant discrimination at home for wanting to help the war effort, or even to just be left alone. There were also Fascist women here who formed groups to push the prevention of intervention in the war on the European continent.

While I got a lot of interesting information and learned a lot, I did have two problems with Our Mothers’ War. The first problem is that the author kept her own opinions about the majority of the groups of women out of her writing until she gets to parts about “undesirable” women, such as prostitutes who worked in Hawaii. She then pushes a certain type of feminism that doesn’t happen to be mine, and it drove me nuts. I didn’t feel that I needed to be preached to while I was learning about the conditions these women lived in.

My other problem with Yellin is in the other direction. She presents primary sources to give us information, but she fails to create a story about women during WWII. The vast majority of her writing would be better suited to an academic summary of the topic, not a book intended for popular consumption. It would have been nice to read something that was a little more narative.

Our Mothers’ War provides good information. It just would be nice for it to be better suited to the intended audience.

Rating: 3.5/5

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The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I waited a long time to read The Botany of Desire.  When it first came out, the local library couldn’t keep it on the shelves; I ended up on long waiting lists that I never reached the end of before having to go back to college in the fall.  So I was excited to be able to get it and read it.  It’s not quite what I thought it would be, but that’s mostly in a good way.  Michael Pollan has written a book that is thought-provoking, unexpected, and wide in scope.

The book starts with a short introduction, in which Pollan states that he is interested in how certain plants meet certain human desires:  the apple satisfies sweetness; the tulip, beauty; marijuana, intoxication; and the potato meets our need for power.  He also sets forthhis hypothesis that cultivated plants have used humans to their advantage in order to survive in conditions they wouldn’t normally be able to.

This was probably my biggest disappointment with the book — it seems a fairly obvious idea that plants we care for have used us for their purposes, just as we use them.  It’s an idea I remember encountering in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (although on a smaller scale, and with bits that are much more integral to our physical makeup and survival), and, indeed, Pollan admits that The Selfish Gene played a role in the development of his book.

I loved reading the four chapters, though, because they don’t just push this idea.  Pollan starts out with the apple.  He discusses how wild apples are normally so bitter as to be inedible, and that grafting is the only way to ensure that a tree will bear tasty fruit.  He also gives quite a history of John Chapman — Johnny Appleseed — that I quite enjoyed.  Chapman was a character, spreading seeds (and thus unpredictable apple trees-to-be) into Ohio and, later, Indiana.  He was a vegetarian who went barefoot and enjoyed best sleeping in hollowed out trees.  His story is a charming one that I was completely unfamiliar with.  It was a delight to find such a piece of American history included here.

The section on tulips was a little less interesting to me.  The fact that color variation is due to a virus was news to me, but I’ve heard the story of tulipomania quite a few times.  Pollan brings some insight to the craziness — mainly, that the Puritan conditions of the Netherlands led people to indulge their lust in something relatively harmless, rather than the more earthly pleasures their religion prohibited.  Overall, though, I found it a little long and prone to navel-gazing.

Marijuana, the next chapter, discussed not just intoxication by that particular drug, but also talked about the historical use of many types of substances to induce altered states of consciousness.  Pollan talks about the science at the cutting-edge (at least for the time the book was written) of how marijuana affects the brain.  It’s incredibly fascinating to think about — substances in so many plants, that developed for so many purposes, also have a place in human culture and in human biology both in order to give us experiences we otherwise would never experience.

The lowly potato is the subject of the last section.  I found it a bit preachy; Pollan spends most of the time talking about how the Monsanto corporation has developed a potato with genetic modifications that make the plant create its own pesticide.  He visits some potato farmers, grows his own Monsanto potatoes, and eventually can’t eat the produce once they’re fully-grown, despite the fact that he’d already eaten them at one farmer’s home and in processed potato products.  As a man who is an avid gardener — and who put himself up to the task of growing these potatoes — I would think that he should have at least given them a shot.

The Botany of Desire was a mix of biology, culture, and personal experience.  It worked well in some situations, but not in others, but I think the good parts of the book overshadow the flat ones.  Just don’t look for a straightforward cultural history of agriculture, and you’ll have an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller

This is a book I read out of semi-necessity.  We are soon bringing a puppy home, and, while I have trained a dog before, my fiancé has not.  We thus made a trip to Barnes & Noble, where he used his gift card from Christmas to buy The Power of Positive Dog Training.  True to how our relationship works, I ended up reading it first, and he’ll start it a little later.  I found Pat Miller’s book to be full of perspective-changing ideas, and I think there will be a lot of information she included that I will incorporate into our training process, but we won’t be using her entire repertoire of techniques.

The most valuable aspect of The Power of Positive Dog Training is its emphasis on using rewards (and the occasional removal of pleasant rewards) in order to shape a dog’s behavior.  I have been through training sessions in which I’ve been instructed to, for example, suddenly turn about-face on a walk if a dog pulls forward, so that he gets a sharp jerk on his leash.  I’ve never felt comfortable with that, even though I tried it for a while.  I found it much more comforting to me, and just as effective in regards to changing the dog’s behavior, to simply stop and wait until the dog started watching me again for cues as to when to walk.

Miller suggests many techniques similar to this — ignoring and turning away when a dog jumps up, for example.  This is also something I have done, and it works better than pushing down on the dog or a knee to the chest.  The dog really wants attention, and, for a lot of them, they don’t care whether it’s a little rough or not.  Deny the attention, and the behavior is extinguished.

Probably the best surprise I got in reading Miller’s book was something very small and simple — avoiding the word “no”.  “No” is a big problem, if for no other reason that it’s frequently said with a negative tone.  She recommends saying something like “oops” instead, which I love.  It’s virtually impossible to be angry when saying “oops”.  Go ahead, try it.  It’s so much softer, and I’m going to make a game try to keep that word in the forefront of my training, instead of “no”.

The one big drawback for me with this book is that the actual training is based on clickers.  I don’t have experience with clicker training myself, but my parents trained their second dog partially with a clicker.  I don’t think they were overly thrilled with the results; unlike Cody, their older dog I helped train, Ollie, the younger, clicker-trained one, is less likely to listen.  That might still be rambunctious puppy behavior to a certain extent, but I still think that the clicker was less effective.

I also don’t like the fact that she has the person doing the training purposely not teach the dog the verbal cue for the behavior until they’ve somehow shaped or lured the dog into performing the behavior several times.  It hurts my brain to think of me not having some sort of verbal interaction with my dog while training him, and I really want him to learn to listen to my voice, pay attention to my face, and learn the term along with the behavior.

So we’ll have to see.  Miller has definitely changed my mindset on how to train a dog, to a certain extent.  The effectiveness of some of her techniques, though, will need to be proven to me before I feel comfortable with them.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth, a book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, has been on my reading list for a while.  I read The Namesake, one of Lahiri’s previous books, five or six years ago and really enjoyed it.  While Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of enjoyable stories, they feel more coarsely developed than her earlier novel.

Lahiri delivers to us a group of stories about second-generation Indian immigrants.  They are their coming-of-age stories; some are somewhat surprising, since it takes some of the characters forty years to reach a point of true maturity.  I think Lahiri has it right when she casts her population in that category of delayed social milestones — the pressure to be successful academically and to have a good career takes precedent above love and creating a family for a lot of these people.  Their parents want them to do both, but the push to be wunderkinds causes a lot of social immaturity.  Add to that the cultural pressure to stay within the ethnic group with all romantic affairs, and it’s no wonder the children of Indian immigrants are often seen in academia without a spouse or children until they are well into their thirties (or even early forties).

My favorite story in this book, also called “Unaccustomed Earth”, is about a Bengali woman who is married to a white man, has a son with him and another child on the way.  Her father, with whom she trades the narrative voice, is a widower living on the other side of the United States.  He has taken to travelling, and has a secret travel partner who is also Indian.  His daughter, while starting her own family, feels the pull to follow Indian tradition and ask her father to stay with them.  I felt that the interplay between her wants and her perception of what society expects of her were interesting, as was what her father actually wanted.  I thought the end of the story, especially, was very good.

I also liked the second half of the book, composed of three short stories, which is about two families and their only children — one boy, one girl — and their journeys through growing up.  The first, “Once In a Lifetime”, is written in the second person by the girl, Hema, to the boy, Kaushik.  She talks about the re-emigration of Kaushik’s family and the interaction the two families had when hers hosted his when they were first back in the country.  The second, “Year’s End”, is from him to her, about his life during college.  The last, “Going Ashore”, is their stories to each other when the get reacquainted.  The series is pretty good, and would have been interesting as a book on its own.

My main issue with Unaccustomed Earth is with Lahiri’s narrative.  She feels as though each character’s inner workings needs to be written down for the reader to read.  Why can’t their actions speak toward their feelings?  Give the reader some work to do.  We like it.  That’s why we read.  The book could have been shorter that way, too, or it could have included more stories.  As they stand, the stories feel bloated.  The only ones where this structure makes sense is in the second half of the book, where two characters are basically writing to one another.  For the other stories, it feels heavy-handed and coarse.

I loved the stories in Unaccustomed Earth.  I like Lahiri.  I just wish that her editor had taken the time to tell her to be a little more subtle with her narrative.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

I’ll admit it:  I’ve become rather fond of Harry Dresden, the hero of The Dresden Files series.  He’s always off fighting something interesting — rogue wizards, werewolves, toad-monsters … they’re all problematic creatures Dresden has to face.  Grave Peril, the third installment in the series, covers a new type of supernatural creature — the ghost.  The results are spooky and good at the same time.

Jim Butcher starts off the book with Dresden and a friend, Michael Carpenter, going in to a hospital to stop a ghost from smothering the babies in the nursery.  Michael is some sort of paladin — faithful, honest, strong, and steadfast — and his sword is an instrument for smiting evil.  A surprisingly difficult battle with the ghost ensues after they pursue her to The Nevernever, as does a visit from Dresden’s godmother, Lea, who apparently owns his soul and wishes to collect as soon as possible.

Added into this mix is the Nightmare, a sentient ghost-like creature that takes some of Dresden’s power, incapacitates Karrin Murphy, the head of Special Investigations for the Chicago Police Department, and enjoys taking people over when they sleep.  We’ve also got significant vampire activity and the involvement of some back-story that provides for clever surprises with the plot.

One of the attributes I like about Butcher’s series is the humor.  I’m a sucker for puns, so I got a kick out of Dresden’s joke about the vampiress on a diet (“Make hers a Blood Lite”), among others.  Yet this book felt darker to me than the previous two, and I wonder if some of that is because we’re getting to know Dresden better.  It’s harder to joke around with characters when they’ve become established and people have developed attachments to them.  The change toward a more serious tone isn’t bad, and Butcher still keeps his tongue in his cheek a good bit.  This installment is just a little less so.

A couple of things about this particular book made it a little more difficult to like.  The first may seem petty, but it drove me nuts:  Dresden says “Hell’s bells” a lot in this book.  This is the first time I can recall him ever using this term.  He says it, on average, one time per chapter.  That would make for thirty-nine “Hell’s bells”.  It’s not just the term, which I find mildly annoying; it’s also that I don’t think it’s something that the Dresden I knew from the first two books would say.  Maybe I just overlooked it, but, in Grave Peril, the abundance of the comments jarred me out of the narrative each time I read it, which I’m pretty sure isn’t what Butcher was aiming to do.

The second is that quite a bit of time, series-wise, has elapsed between the previous book, Fool Moon, and this one.  That means that there’s a lot of back-story we only have filled in part-way — Michael has been his partner on the exorcisms, but when did they meet?  How?  What’s the full story on the big event that involved Special Investigations?  Is it in a short story somewhere?  Couldn’t it have been part of the story of this book?  That would have been fantastic, and I wouldn’t have spent part of the book wondering why something was the way it was until it was explained through a narrative about past events.

The Dresden Files is an awesome series.  Grave Peril is a fine addition, but not quite as good as its predecessors.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

Heather Sellers says again and again that, when she shares the story of her family with other people, people who don’t know her parents, they react with shock and incredulity.  How, exactly, could a child have grown up relatively normal if both her father and her mother were so irrational, so abusive, so … well, crazy?  In her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers explores her current life in the context of her childhood in an interesting way that leads to a greater understanding of her own behavior and the path she is living.

Sellers starts off discussing her trip from Michigan to Florida with her boyfriend and his two sons.  They are going because Sellers has a speaking engagement, because the boys haven’t been to Disney World, because she has her twentieth high school reunion, and because that’s where her parents are.  The visit to both parents’ homes goes badly, leaving Sellers disheartened.

Throughout the rest of the book, we learn why her parents’ behavior is so odd.  Well, not why it’s odd, but we learn that it’s normal for her mother to behave as if someone’s been looking through her purse and for her father to think it’s appropriate for his daughter to sleep in a recliner she shares with a dog while he has an extra room filled with odd gadgets.  These are not people who should ever have had children — at least not together.  Instead of providing Sellers with stable ground to find her feet, these two constantly caused earthquakes.

In her adult life, Sellers accosted by a former high school boyfriend, who pesters her with questions about her mother.  “What was she, schizophrenic?” he finally asks, leaving Sellers struggling to cope with the realization that her mother might be mentally ill.  She asks her parents, but gets no answers from either of them.

Meanwhile, while she’s worried about her mother’s well-being, Sellers is also realizing that she has something going on in her brain.  She can’t recognize faces.  While she can make guesses as to who people are, she often walks right by people she knows (and occasionally greets people who are strangers).  She figures out what she has, asks for diagnostics … and her concerns are minimized.  It is not until researchers at Harvard find out that she thinks she has face blindness and invite her to be part of a study does she get confirmation of the fact that she cannot, in fact, recognize people.

Try getting people to believe that.  Most of the rest of the book documents her attempts to get those around her to realize that, no, she’s not being rude, she just can’t recognize you.  No, it’s not that she doesn’t remember names.  No, hair and clothes aren’t always enough to be able to discern someone.  Sellers explores the difficulties in trying to get others to realize that she does have a disability, which is something a lot of us can relate to.

My main issue with You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is that, with the split structure, I had a limited amount of interest in Sellers’ story.  I wanted her to pick one line and stick to it!  Having read the entire thing, I see why she made the choice she did.  I still think it might have been better to make the two a little more distinct; the book is already divided into chapters and sections; why not use a section to explore one time period?

Other than that, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a solid medical memoir with some interesting familial twists.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes reading about dysfunctional families, odd medical maladies, or both.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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The Convent by Panos Karnezis

Panos Karnezis’s The Convent is a different sort of literary pseudo-mystery.  Usually, if there’s a baby in a convent, the focus is on figuring out who the mother is among the nuns.  Karnezis manages to create a story that pulls the focus off that end, making the eventual reveal more honest and enjoyable than a more direct hunt for the mother would be.

The first thing I have to say is that The Convent is beautifully written.  His description has a wonderful quality of being detailed without pushing through the reader’s ability to imagine the location on their own, which I love.  The characters’ behaviors are strongly depicted, their actions at once predictable and surprising.

Karnezis only has us follow a couple of characters throughout the book, which makes the eventual end of the story more interesting.  The Mother Superior, Sister María Inés, is the main character.  She is a complex women, with a sad past that colors her reaction to the sudden appearance of a baby on the doorstep of the convent.  The baby, enclosed in a ventilated suitcase, is seen by her as a sign from God.  Karnezis uses her to explore the lengths to which a person can go due to their beliefs, no matter how misguided.  He does this well, but I also felt that some of her behavior is stretched to the almost-unbelievable, especially her behavior after being attacked by a dog in the yard of the convent.

We occasionally get to see into the mind of Sister Ana, Sister María Inés’ main antagonist.  Her mental state is about as unsettled as the Mother Superior’s, but she seems to have no reason to be so suspicious and mistrustful of almost everyone.  A little more about her background would be wonderful.

The last character we get to know is Bishop Estrada, the man who oversees the convent.  Living far away, he visits occasionally and is a mostly-benevolent presence in the nuns’ lives.  He plays an instrumental role on what happens to the baby.  He is a voice of reason and moderation for the nuns, but is not without his own personal motives.

These characters shape our understanding of the world of the book.  This leads to a surprising climax and interesting denouement, which I rather enjoyed.  The early revelation of the Mother Superior’s secret makes one feel that the story is about her, especially since we follow her so closely.  And, in a way, it is about her and her reaction to the arrival of the child.  But it is the story that is hidden in the end that is truly interesting to me, mostly because it’s about people who struggle to maintain their faith when faced with temptation and how they deal with the consequences.

It’s this story that is infinitely more interesting to me than the increasingly unhinged behavior of Sister María Inés and Sister Ana.  The friction between them, and their actions, feel too extreme to me to make The Convent more than a good story written excellently.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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