Archive for the ‘non fiction’ Category

This is a picture book biography aimed at young readers. It has incredibly vibrant art, filled with color and movement, which draws readers unfamiliar with Josephine Baker fully into her story. What I particularly like about this book is that it does a wonderful job of capturing the wit and energy associated with Josephine, both as an individual and as a performer, but it in no way glosses over the difficulties she faced throughout her life, both personally and professionally. It would have been very easy for this to have been just a celebration of her accomplishments, without addressing any of her shortcomings. Another wonderful inclusion is a list of titles for further reading; even if the titles are more advanced than this book, having them listed (as full and complete citations, no less, not simply title and author!) is really a nice touch that shows the scholarship that went into this book–there is also a source cited for every quotation used–but is also an incredible resource for anyone who wants to know more about Josephine after reading this book. There’s so much work that went into this relatively short book, that it’s clear that the subject is something of a passion for both the author and the illustrator. Highly recommended.

Josephine The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Source: borrowed from library

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The full titles of this book is Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. While that might be a slight exaggeration, there is no doubt that Cixi did indeed steer China towards the path of modernization, despite many setbacks and obstacles. It is very long, and the tone is quite scholarly–I was a bit put off at first, but quickly settled in to the rhythm of it; but honestly, the subject is not one that lends itself to a chatty biography. Author Jung Chang makes use of Chinese sources unavailable to previous biographers of Cixi, and she is able to paint a much more equitable and fair portrait of a ruler long considered to be tyrannical, evil, and willfully shortsighted. Of course Cixi still made missteps, and did less than stellar things, as she was only human, but this book gives her a much-needed image overhaul. I have borrowed two volumes by Princess Der Ling, a lady-in-waiting to Cixi, who wrote about her time at the court, in order to see what a contemporary said about her.

I’d recommend this book if you’re at all interested in Chinese history, or women’s history, or if you have heard of Cixi before, in whatever context. Part of my own interest in this book was because I had seen a fascinating exhibit in DC in 2011 that was focused on Cixi. It featured many of the hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of Cixi that the Freer-Sackler has in their collection. It also had a really interesting movie loop (I think it was about 20 minutes?) that showed various portrayals of Cixi throughout the years, in both Western and Asian cinema. She also makes appearances in other works of literature, such as Boxers & Saints, Empress Orchid, and The Last Empress

Empress Dowager Cixi

Source: borrowed from library

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This was a really fascinating book. It is the biography, more or less, of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves in Mississippi. His family became relative wealthy landowners in their community, but after his father was murdered and justice was outright denied the family (they lost everything in pursuing it), Thomas left the South. Like many before him, he first moved to the North, settling in Chicago and later Brooklyn, but he still found that the color of his skin determined  his place in society. He moved on to London, France, and travelled across Europe, before finally settling in Moscow. There he found no color barrier, and became a wealthy man, an owner of several theaters and restaurants. Though his fortunes occasionally fluctuated, his life was generally quite good–until the Bolsheviks seized power. Thomas barely escaped Russia, and eventually ended up in Constantinople, where once again he managed to make a fortune as a nightclub owner. There, however, his luck finally ran out, and he ended up in debtor’s prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928, a broken man.

Just the idea that someone would willingly move to Russia in the late 1800s should tell you how bad it was for black men and women in the South (and the North, let’s not fool ourselves) at that time. Yes, Thomas did face challenges in Moscow. For starters, he had to learn the language–with many of his clients he could converse in French, which he had learned previously, but for day-to-day matters, he had to learn Russian. And then there was the matter of the Russian bureaucracy, and the system of bribes, and the general difficulties of being such an obvious Other in a relatively insular society. But Thomas persevered, and was successful. Amazingly, fabulously successful. If the Bolsheviks had not seized power, causing his world to collapse, it is unlikely he would have ever left; he did try very hard to stay, and only left when it because intolerable and dangerous to remain.

In short, this is a completely different portrait of a Reconstruction-era black man, and would be fascinating to read concurrently with The Warmth of Other Suns, even if that book covers a slightly later period (1915-1970). Highly recommended.




The Black Russian

Source: borrowed from library


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I read this book because I am a sporadic reader of xkcd, and also because the premise sounded intriguing. Basically like “MythBusters” carried to the nth degree, and that’s more or less what it is. Except more better. If you like serious science and have no appreciation for the absurd, this is not the book for you. If you don’t like footnotes or stick figures, this is not the book for you. But if you think it’s fun to learn something by taking a concept far beyond its logical endpoint to the utmost extreme, then this is clearly the book for you. Also: SCIENCE!

I would recommend this book to anyone who loved David Macaulay’s How Things Work, or indeed anyone who has ever pondered “I wonder what would happen if…”

what if

Source: borrowed from library

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This is an incredibly amazing collection of essays, and you should all go out and read it now. Right now. I’ll wait.

It’s the sort of book that makes me happy, and angry, and sad, and proud, and depressed, and basically I just feel all the feels, and I really need someone else to read it so that I can have a very long and involved and probably overly emotional discussion about it. (Kellie?)

It makes me want to be a better person, a better feminist, a better member of the human race, and at the same time it makes me so very aware of the privilege that I know I need to acknowledge in order that I can have healthy conversations about uncomfortable things, but I don’t want to–because honestly, who likes to admit that they’re privileged? No one. But I am. And so are you.

And on the other hand, it tells me that it’s ok, because everyone has all of these burdens and issues and baggage that makes them a “bad” feminist, a “bad” person, a “bad” whatever, but the important thing is that you are aware of them. Try to not charge blindly in like a bull in a china shop (even though bulls in china shops don’t really do that much damage; as a metaphor that one we are stuck with), leaving chaos and destruction in your wake. Acknowledge your faults and weaknesses, try to acknowledge the faults and weaknesses of others, but never ever conflate that with disrespect or pity, and try to treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect, because as trite as it sounds, you really don’t know anything about them, and you also need to check your privilege. And play more Scrabble maybe, and realize it’s ok to like trashy books and TV and movies.

This book makes me want to be the very best bad feminist I can be.

Bad Feminist

Source: personal copy

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I got this as a gift at Christmas. I’m not planning on doing a Julie/Julia type project, mostly because I am too lazy. (Isn’t honesty fun!)

But since I am taking next week off from work, I’ll make one thing from the book, and post about it here. I can’t decide what would be best: something I fail miserably at, because it’s more fun to read and write about culinary disasters, or something I know I can succeed at and thus build my confidence until the inevitable failure.

Any comments from the peanut gallery?

The real reason I wanted this book is because I’ve gotten lazy about cooking. Mr Lush is happy with the regular rotation of stuff I make, so why bother making something else? Besides, it’s easier to just make spaghetti carbonara AGAIN, rather than to try something new, because that takes planning and it might not taste good. So this is sort of a resolution, although I would not go so far as to call it that–that way lies failure. Rather, it’s me attempting to learn new dishes. Because while I am lazy, I’m perfectly capable of doing more: I like to bake, and that’s a lot fussier and more time-consuming than your average dinner recipe.

So. Onward and upward.

Publisher site

Source: personal copy

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Or rather, a snowed-in weekend. Winter decided to give the midwest one last snowstorm, hooray. At least this wasn’t my weekend to work, and today the library is closed for the holiday anyway, so it really wasn’t too difficult to deal with–I sat on the sofa with Lush Puppy, drank cocoa, and read books:

Zombies vs Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
It’s a short story collection about zombies and unicorns! Generally speaking, I liked the zombie stories better, but there were a few *really* good unicorn ones. My Team Zombie favorites: “Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan, “Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld, and “Prom Night” by Libba Bray. My Team Unicorn favorites: “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund and “Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot.

Poison: A Novel of the Renaissance by Sara Poole
Ehhh, it could have (should have!) been a lot better. It took itself far too seriously, desperately wanting to be a Serious Historical Novel, but there were too many anachronisms for it to work, and not enough fun to gloss over the issues. It’s pretty sad that a book featuring the Borgias and their household so prominently is kind of boring. I did finish it, because I was invested enough to want to see how the story ended, but I won’t bother reading the sequel.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
I just started this book today, and it’s a much better historical novel. It doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and it’s quite frothy and fun. In fact, it makes me want to go back and reread The Scarlet Pimpernel, because the story takes place shortly after the Revolution and even features the erstwhile Scarlet Pimpernel himself! As well as other dashing spies, silly young ladies, and lots of good dialogue. I may not wade my way through the entire series, but if the book remains entertaining, I’ll happily pick up the next few titles.

Jane’s fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman
This is a lot more scholarly than I expected, so it’s taking me much longer to read it than I had originally anticipated. But I’m really enjoying it–I like that it combines research and a thorough biography with trivia and pop culture. It’s amazing to realize how global Jane Austen’s influence has become, and to see the diverse ways her work has been interpreted and adapted.

Source: all books borrowed from library

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