July 9, 2013 by lucieromarin
We’re halfway through 2013, and it’s time for more books! Here are some noteworthy books of the year so far:
Socrates, Paul Johnson.
I often wonder how historians feel about popular histories. Do they hold them in contempt (because historians didn’t write them) or dismay (because there’s so much missing from them) or relief (thank goodness someone other than me wants to read history)? I don’t like to think that those of us who don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on academic texts and hundreds of hours spare for reading them, should go without the subject altogether. At the same time, you pick up a book called ‘Teach Yourself The Middle Ages in Ten Minutes,’ and you know you’re getting a kind of intellectual fob-off – you’d be better off reading the Wikipedia.
I can’t review ‘Socrates’ from an historian’s perspective: I haven’t the faintest clue if Johnson represented Athens and her characters truthfully or not (or, at least, as truthfully as you can do when most of your data has been lost to time.) What I can say is that it seemed perfectly designed for the mildly intelligent reader who appreciates clear writing, who wants to engage with the past, but who is time-poor in the present. I expected the book to be useful, and found it so. I did not expect it to be enjoyable, but I found it was that, too. I’ll read it again!
Marmee and Louisa, Eva LPlante
This is a dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her mother Abigail, with an emphasis on the enduring trial of Abigail’s marriage and the impact of this trial both upon the mother-daughter relationship and the daughter’s writings.
Well, it doesn’t get a ten out of ten, because it was marred throughout by phrases (or clauses, whatever) such as, “Freed by his gender from the burden of housekeeping…” which not only insulted the reader’s knowledge of history, (seriously? Did the author really not know that I would know that men didn’t have to do housework then?) but also implied that we couldn’t recognise the injustices in Abigail’s life without the author’s help (LOOK, reader! A GRIEVANCE!).
However, where the biographer simply told the story – and, better yet – where she let the diaries of the married couple and their children tell the stories for them, she created something…well, actually, it was reminiscent of that strange quality of the writings of Alcott herself, in which the discussion of social ills and personal suffering somehow goes hand in hand with the strength of love and the nobility of virtue. Injustice is somehow touched by blessing, so that you go away from the experience determined to do good and to help others, rather than determined to complain and hate others.
I’d recommend this book as recreation-during-times-of-trial, for those times when neither the wholly-grim nor the wholly-escapist stuff will do. That is, when you need to be both grounded and transported, this work could serve you well.
Sufficient Grace, Amy Espeseth
An Australian writer! I’ll admit to being a little disappointed at first, because I thought this was going to be a novel about a cult, and it wasn’t. However, my anticipation was wholly my own fault, so the moral of the story is, don’t assume that a book is about a cult unless the blurb says, “This book is about a cult.”
What it actually was, was the story of five months in the lives of two families, members of a small Pentecostal community in Wisconsin. It’s narrated by a young teenage girl, who finds that her teenage cousin is expecting a baby.
Flaws? The narrator’s voice seemed inconsistent to me, and compared unfavourably to the multiple sustained melodies of Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help.’ The repeated use of ‘I am’ instead of ‘I’m,’ really jarred, especially against ‘folks’ and ‘ain’t.’ Also, after a while, the chapters seemed to fall into a pattern: incident/dialogue, reflection on nature, religious pronouncement. Once or twice was effective; after that, it became so annoying that I’d say, “Oh, here’s that bit,” and skip it in order to get to the next incident/dialogue. I know that in doing so I missed some good writing, but that’s what happens when a pattern gets annoying. (Also, note to author, horrible thing to do to a baby!!!)
Despite this… well, I’ve already used the word ‘transport’ but really, there were times when I forgot I was reading, because the scene before me was so immediate, down to the smallest detail. How did she make twigs and snow and kitchens and cars and cold and warmth and the sounds of singing so real? And her community felt truthful – granted, I’ve never been a member of a Pentecostal community deep in Wisconsin, but it didn’t feel like a caricature, or like the byproduct of an authorial agenda. Grandma, Naomi and Uncle Peter were as truthful to me as anything biography has to offer – more so, in fact, because they were more deeply known by their creator than the subjects of biography can be known by their biographers. Flaws notwithstanding, Espeseth really gave me the experience of a different life.
I don’t know who I’d recommend this book to, but I do think that if you yourself want to write, you could learn from it.