Category Archives: Favorable

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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Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

I was intensely interested in reading Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So for a couple of different reasons. The first one is that it’s by the son of Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. The second is that the premise of the book is that he discusses what it’s like to be both a successful doctor and a person with bipolar disorder. I liked his description of how his life unfolded and appreciated his insight into his life as a whole. I’ve not read his fiction, but I would say that his ability to show the reader what it is like to have a mental disorder while maintaining a successful and functional (for the most part) lifestyle shows there might be a familial tie for writing talent.

Vonnegut talks a bit about what it was like to grow up with his father. Kurt was a gruff man – if you want to put it mildly – and, despite the good things he did, like taking in his nephews after their parents died, Mark Vonnegut doesn’t give the impression that he ever did become an outwardly caring father. What he does show us is that his father was there when he needed him, like during his hospitalizations.

One aspect of Vonnegut’s book that I especially liked was that he wrote about what it was like to be in school and become successful at his profession and then have his disease get out of control. I think most people don’t get the fact that people with bipolar disorder can recover. It’s important, in my opinion, that people like the author come forward and talk about the fact that, yes, he has a mental illness, and, yes, he has been hospitalized for it, and now he’s doing well as a physician (and not only a physician, but a pediatrician).

I also liked that he talked about self-medication. For him, the substance of choice was alcohol, and it caused serious problems for him and his family. No matter what the drug, I think it’s important for people to know that substance abuse can be a sign of undiagnosed or improperly treated mental illness.

One thing I didn’t like was that Vonnegut appears to still have some of the risk-taking behaviors. He became a mushroom hunter and, at one point, ate one that wasn’t so good for him. His wife had to take him to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. I don’t know if it was included as an example to say that he’s not “cured” and that treatment of bipolar disorder is an ongoing process, but I found it scary that he might not realize that he still has urges to do reckless things that he might not have even full reflected on.

Overall, I’m glad Vonnegut wrote Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So. A lot of people will be educated and a lot of people will find hope within its covers.

Rating: 4/5.

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Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

I’ve never really thought much about the banana. I was terrified of them as a child, suspecting that there were deadly poisonous spiders concealed within each bunch. I’ve gotten a little older now, and occasionally enjoy them, but they’ve not really ever been on my mind until I read Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World that tells the reader all about its past, its present, and its future.

Dan Koeppel, the author of Banana, has a wonderful sense of humor throughout the book. He actually goes to visit banana plantations and other notable locations, such as Leuven, Belgium, the seat of banana research. I found his levity delightful; I like microhistories, but not those that take themselves so seriously as to squish the fun out of their topics.

The first thing Koeppel does that I think is great is explore how bananas most likely spread throughout the tropics. He makes the important point that plants, unlike us animals with our easily (in comparison) bones, plants are made of materials that don’t fossilize well. The path of the banana is a guessing game, one that has better odds now that there is genetic testing, but it’s still not perfect.

The majority of Banana, though, is spent discussing the more recent history of the fruit. I found it most interesting that United Fruit Company (what became Chiquita) allowed its competitors to survive only to avoid anti-trust lawsuits. The businesspeople behind the companies were something else — I think it’s incredible how ruthless the leaders of fruit packing companies were. You think fruit and you think happy, but that’s not often the case.

Koeppel talks extensively about the conditions on the ground in Central America. Workers were treated as if they weren’t human, but animals; when they tried to stand up for themselves, the fruit companies got the local (or American) governments to squelch the rebellions. The banana literally helped shape the way government functions today in Central America. How sad it is that it’s often a brutal and militaristic regime that’s in power.

Even more interesting is the disease that killed the banana type most eaten before the 1940s — the gros michel. It was not immune to Panama disease, but the Cavendish was. Thus, we now eat the Cavendish … but it’s not immune to all forms of Panama disease, only those found in Central America. The thought is that the banana will eventually die out like the gros michel, and it’s up to us to find another variety, create another variety (which is difficult with an asexual organism), or find a way to beat Panama disease.

Koeppel presents the banana in both a fun and a serious way, interspersing humor with gravity well. I think anyone who likes microhistory will enjoy Banana.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Having read Cod, I was expecting Four Fish to follow in Mark Kurlansky’s tradition of the microhistory. Sure, maybe this one talks about four fish, I thought, but it’ll still be really meticulous, detailed, and contain almost more information than you’d ever want to know about the topic. Paul Greenberg surprised me by being both focused and able to bring me the big picture in a wonderfully cohesive and intelligent way. He doesn’t write his books like Kurlansky, but he doesn’t have to. He’s capable of producing something that’s just as subtly informative in his own way.

Since the book is called Four Fish, let’s take them one by one. The first is salmon. Greenberg discusses the drop in wild salmon populations, colored by a trip to Alaska to see a fishing operation that runs by the graces of the government. He also talks about the farmed salmon industry, which is where I got my first exposure to the amount of energy it takes to produce a pound of fish. Some fish are not very efficient at using the resources available to them, and quite a few of those are the first ones we’ve picked for domestication.

Greenberg next exposes us to sea bass, another fish people are trying to domesticate. He talks about the guidelines Francis Galton put forth for domestication (hardiness, an inborn liking for man, comfort-loving, be freely breeding animals, and easy to tend), and then discusses how sea bass, a favorite fish food for the Mediterranean peoples — and then much of the rest of the world — doesn’t fit any of these criteria. I found it interesting that researchers have put a lot of effort into fish that are so hard to tend. The process for sea bass started in Israel and then spread from there, and scientists have gotten remarkably far considering that they are such difficult fish.

Cod is where things get really interesting. First of all, Greenberg has the Mark Kurlansky come and taste cod from wild and farmed sources, which I thought was just great. Kurlansky actually picked out the wild cod as one of his favorites; pretty cool when someone can do that! Wild cod stock has, with the rest of these four fishes’ populations, declined wildly. What I found fascinating was that, while there are people trying to farm cod, there’s already some fish that are readily domesticated and require fewer resources — like tilapia (my mother’s favorite). I found that fascinating, and Greenberg talks about how the name recognition (or lack thereof) goes a long way toward whether a seafood is going to be accepted by the public.

The last fish is the tuna. Tuna is the top predator in its habitat, meaning that they are long-lived and take a long time to recover from population drop-offs. One interesting fact about tuna and its consumption in Japan that Greenberg shares with us is that the Japanese found it too fatty to eat before the American occupation, and only developed a taste for it during that time. Tuna also have a counterpart that are a better choice for domestication — the kahala — and eating these fish would allow tuna stocks to replenish.

I really liked how Greenberg wound his story about how we’re damaging fish stocks through some interesting interactions with scientists and fishermen. The best part, though, is that he found fish that fill the same niches as these staple ones — and do it better. For drawing in a vegetarian whose only caught seaweed (and been happy about it), I think Greenberg deserves some credit.

Rating: 4/5.

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Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels was the last of the Thursday Next books sitting on my to-read shelf. I was a little excited about it, mainly because I’ve had a nonfiction reading jag, and I was ready to return to something I’d find more relaxing and less taxing. What I got was a purely delightful book that stands with its head just a little taller than most of the other Thursday Next books.

One of the best things about this book is that it starts off with Thursday as a middle-aged woman. She has her children and her husband, whom she has told she has given up her work with all enforcement agencies she was previously associated with. Instead, she owns a flooring business.

This is, of course, a lie.

Next works undercover, with the carpet-laying job being a ruse so that she can justify to Landen all the time she spends away from home. Life seems to be going along as smoothly as it can when one’s lying to one’s husband, and then there’s a surprise. Thursday’s son, Friday, who is a typical lazy teenager, is revealed to be the future head of the ChronoGuard — except that he should have started training a long time ago. The fate of the world hangs on his career choice; it appears the universe will end in a couple of days.

Thursday is also training herself from her fifth book, Thursday5, to become a Jurisfiction agent. Sadly, she also gets saddled with Thursday1-4, who turns out not to be cut from the correct cloth for this type of work.

I loved the fact that every plot part was easy to track. Fforde did a much better job of juggling the various aspects of the story within the reader’s mind; some of his other Next books have left me a little confused at points when I had to struggle to remember something that was mentioned quite a bit earlier in the book. This time, it was put together so well that I didn’t have to put forth the effort to find what he’s referencing, which is perfect. I read Thursday Next: First Among Sequels for fun and as a break from nonfiction.

Another great thing about this book is that there is a lot less jumping around between books and time. I prefer it when there’s a cleaner flow, and Fforde provided that wonderfully here. I also liked the fewer references — sometimes the earlier books fell into the fault of stretching for a pun or literary mention. There’s less of that here.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels left me excitedly anticipating my chance to read the next book in the series. That’s the mark of an awesome book.

Rating: 5/5.

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Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould

I have to love Stephen Jay Gould. I like most popular science writers, like Carl Sagan, but how many title their books so that the library clerk comes back with a surprised look on his face? He said to me, “It’s a little thicker than I was expecting.” It was about the thickness I was expecting, and I enjoyed every page of it. Gould has a way of writing about evolutionary science that makes it approachable without dumbing it down.

Gould breaks the book down into several sections, so I’ll talk about each section in turn.

The Scale of Extinction

The book starts out with several essays on modern extinction. I thought he spoke particularly well about the dangers of human-introduced flora and fauna, giving the example of land snails on the south Pacific island of Moorea being killed off by African tree snails. I think it’s an important topic (what with living in Michigan with the fear of Asian carp coming into the Great Lakes), but I also like that he discussed the difference between the wiping out of a particular population as opposed to the extinction of a species. He discusses how unique populations don’t necessarily warrant protection against human encroachment, which I thought was interesting.

Odd Bits of Vertebrate Anatomy
This section contains the eponymous essay. It discusses the history of how vertebrate toes have been viewed — for a long time, it was thought that five was the original number … and then came along older fossils with animals with seven and eight toes. I love how this shows that “scientific certainty” has the potential to change on a dime because of new evidence and new thinkers.

Gould also uses this section to talk about errors Darwin made in his writings. He reminds us that judging Darwin by our own standards leads to knee-jerk reactions without taking into account the times, and he makes the argument that, while some of his thoughts on human behavior and development are racist by today’s standards, they were an attempt to make sense of the world through the nineteenth century’s lens. I liked that essay a lot; it reminded me that my grandchildren will think I have all sorts of old-fashioned and biased ideas, and not to judge too harshly until you see the entire picture.

Vox Populi

Gould breaks this up into two sections, but I’ll just treat it as one big group. Here he talks about the true spirit of scientific inquiry, giving the example of his father, who honestly tried to understand concepts that were blurred for him by the sniping back and forth of two authors of different books on the same topic. I thought it was provoking; I liked the fact that he made me think about whether I can respect and trust what someone says based on authority — indeed, it hammered home that logical fallacy for me.

I also loved his article on Bishop Ussher. This is the man who said that the world started in 4004 B.C. Gould explores how he got that date — and provides the reader with a genuine way to respect the man’s technique (though not the motivation or the end result).

Musings

This is also in a couple of sections. Gould talks about how fallible memory can be while exploring one of his own false memories, and he also discusses authenticity, which I found especially interesting. How odd it is when something is taken out of its proper context, or when a replica is put in its place. Gould gives the example of London Bridge, which was disassembled, shipped to America, and then reassembled for display. That’s not nearly as awesome as seeing it in its original setting, and I get what he’s saying. If we don’t have the right context for something, it won’t make sense, and, worse, it won’t invoke interest or curiosity. Artificiality deadens the imagination — and I think he’s right.

Human Nature

Gould here talks about the human brain and the nature of genius, with Mozart as the example. Mozart wrote amazing music at a tender age, but remained the same developmentally in every other category. I liked that he pointed this out; smart people (or talented people) are not supermen. They’re normal except in specific ways, and we all have our high points.

We also get to hear about the branching of primates. How sad it is to learn that we aren’t a successful part of that lineage — too few primates to view it any other way — but that does make us precious, I suppose.

Grand Patterns of Evolution

This was probably my favorite part of the book. There’s one section that talks about creatures that had hard parts that fossilized easily that were once thought to be individual species because of the lack of any connecting material. It took until someone found a rare fossil that preserved soft tissue that it was known to be one larger creature! I thought that was great, and also very much in the spirit of this book — science is fallible and science is changing. Neat!

Revising and Extending Darwin

Here, Gould discusses the changes evolutionary theory has gone through. I think this is important information — we all know about Darwin and his ideas, but how many of us know the amount of tweaking those ideas have gone through? Gould talks about his own idea of punctuated equilibrium (although I’m not sure he actually ever uses the term), which states that things change little during down times, and then explode during times of great catastrophe or environmental upheaval. He also discusses neoteny,which is one of the few things I remember from my psychology classes in college — mainly because I think it’s a clever little tool evolution developed.

Reversals — Fragments of a Book Not Written

One of my favorite concepts is in this section. At one point, a species of clam was thought extinct because there were no fossils found of it after a certain point in the strata. Then they were found in the 1800s, alive, in Australian waters. Here Gould drives home the point that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. How could it be? You can’t prove a negative — you just have to hope that you’re going in the right direction, and if there are exceptions, that you can accept them.

Overall, I love Gould’s writing. It shines with a humor and feels researched without being tedious. I think anyone interested in natural history or the history of science would love Eight Little Piggies.

Rating: 5/5.

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Bearing an Hourglass by Piers Anthony

Bearing an Hourglass, the second in the Incarnations of Immortality series, follows the pattern of the first book pretty closely. I liked On a Pale Horse fairly well, so it was nice to return to a set way of writing. I would say that, even though I enjoy Piers Anthony’s stories, I found a bit of the language and attitude a little dated, and, with this one, the time travel a tad confusing.

One of the best things about this series is that you know it’s setting up for something good. As opposed to the last book, where we meet the new Thanatos (death), we this time get to see the story of the origin of Chronos (time). It establishes a pattern of the reader meeting the Incarnations at the beginning of their service time, which will be nice if that’s how the rest of them go.

Norton, our hero, manages to stumble into his new line of work by meeting up with Gawain, a ghost, and serving as a surrogate father for him. This leads to some discomfort on Norton’s part, and, to make up for it, the ghost arranges for Norton to become Chronos, able to go forwards and backwards in time as he pleases.

There’s some love interest for Norton with a couple of women, but he seems to understand that his new life (and, really, his old one, too) doesn’t allow for relationships. His fondness for being on the move, both through time and space, don’t allow for it. Satan takes advantage of these aspects of Norton’s personality to confuse him and to get him out of the way of his plot. This is where having read On a Pale Horse becomes important.

Luna, the beloved of Thanatos, is fated to become a powerful politician who will thwart, once and for all, Satan’s takeover of the world. By playing games with Norton, Satan manages to make Luna’s rise to power disappear. The rest of the book involves Norton setting things right and realizing that the power of manipulating time comes with huge costs.

I liked this book, but I think it’s mainly for the fact that it’s part of a larger story that I’m really interested in. I liked Norton, but he wasn’t the most compelling of characters to me — he’s a drifter, and I’ve always been more interested in those who at least have a goal of settling. And his reaction toward situations in any way sexual were a little embarrassing, although maybe the books were intended for young adults and Anthony didn’t feel it appropriate to make things more explicit.

The one other main problem I had with the book is I got confused with a lot of the time movements. I forgot what some of the more exotic sand colors meant in the hourglass (I had red, blue, and green down, though), and I had a hard time remembering which way was forward and which way was backward.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. Bearing an Hourglass has a lot of entertaining moments, and I’m looking forward to seeing the full story when I read the rest of the books in the series.

Rating: 4/5.

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