Unmentionable (CBR9 #37)

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One of the questions I receive most often at my job as a educator at historic sites is “wouldn’t you love to live back then?” For reference, that encompasses a period of time roughly 1820-1920 and the answer is a resounding no. I am all about indoor plumbing, air conditioners, and not being considered property. This book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill lays out all the ways life was downright terrible for women life was during that same approximate period.

For most people this would not be considered a beach read. For me it absolutely is. Lumenatrix coined the style of this type of book as “accessible non-fiction”, which I completely agree with and am now stealing. I’ve always thought of it as “non-fiction with a sense of humor” like Mary Roach’s books. Therese Oneill is wonderfully sarcastic and direct in her prose, and the structure of the book is well thought out and easily followed. Oneill moves naturally from one aspect of daily life to the next laying out all the differences for life of women in the firmly upper middle class then to life today.

For me, the best part of this book is the way in which Oneill weaves in primary resources, both visual and print into her narrative. While I already knew much of what Oneill discussed, having access to her resources was a bonus to me. So much so, that I immediately passed it along to Ale since she is researching Victorian ladies and their unmentionables for an upcoming project.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Life Moves Pretty Fast (CBR9 #33)

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I read a decent amount of non-fiction in my life, so Cannonball Read’s June Book Club book, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies was right up my alley. I also really enjoy the process, the lore, and the production decisions surrounding Hollywood and the film industry, which is why I decided to skew our non-fiction selections a certain way.

I liked this book fine, but I think Hadley Freeman (while an accomplished writer) had quite a few missteps, which prevented me from rating this anything above three stars. Freeman attempts to explain how the big movies of the 80s (which is a VERY broad starting point) are worthy of study and teach us something. She also discusses the ways in which the process of film production and marketing have changed the quality and type of movies we see. All in 300 pages.

It’s too much. Freeman’s scope prevents her from putting together a detailed looks at her chosen movie subjects, and by adhering to the “lessons taught” subtitle Freeman ends up with chapters which do not argue the point she is trying to make. There are two chapters in particular which drive home the weaknesses of the book to me: the Ghostbusters chapter and the Eddie Murphy chapter.

The Ghostbusters chapter doesn’t actually prove her point in its duration. The lesson that Freeman ascribes to the movie is “How to Be a Man”, which is honestly not even a lesson I think is accurate to the movie in the first place. But Freeman spends time wandering on and on about Top Gun (perhaps the movie she should have built this chapter around) and fails to make even the most basic connection to Ghostbusters and the lesson. In fact, in quoting Bill Murray, Freeman stumbles across the movie’s likely lesson: that friendship which doesn’t depend on misogyny or insecurity is the root of its long term appeal (139). And in a way this leads to her argument of an idealized sort of masculinity that’s neither patrician nor man-boy. Just funny and warm but she doesn’t actually connect the dots.

The other troublesome chapter, to me, is the one about Eddie Murphy. Not because of what she is discussing, the way in which the Hollywood machine functions on tokenism, but the fact that she doesn’t pick a single movie to highlight and even more egregiously, she saves this for the final chapter. If Hadley had structured her book differently, and moved this broader chapter to the beginning and used it to highlight the issues, we see in the other movies she discusses it would have served the book better and made Freeman look more in tune with the critiques she is attempting.

Other random thoughts:

  • Pretty in Pink is NOT BETTER THAN THE BREAKFAST CLUB.
  • The “perfect” aesthetic. Who else missed people looking like people on the big screen?
  • It is still so rare for a movie to be focused on the female gaze.
  • About Dirty Dancing: “It is nothing new for a women’s movie – or book, or TV show – to be dismissed by male film critics as frothy nothingness” (24)We have seen this so recently with Big Little Lies
  • The Princess Bride becomes more than a RomCom because it’s a multilayered look at love, particularly in the story lines of Fezzik and Inigo: good people sometimes do bad things, but are still good, have stories of their own, and are capable of love (49)
  • Woody Allen has always been gross.
  • In When Harry Met Sally, Sally doesn’t perform any of the three usual tasks of women in RomComs – pine desperately for the man, make the man grow up by being a nagging shrew, or be liberated from her frigid bitchiness (95)
  • We cannot bear as a society that each generation being more successful than the last by seeming guarantee is over (Ferris Bueller wouldn’t be made now).
  • We haven’t had a classic womens movie since the 90s: Fried Green Tomatoes and A League of Their Own. The Help doesn’t count since it deals in the whites solving racism trope (171) they have instead been replaced by negative sisterhood movies
  • Parents in teen films have evolved as teens have from someone to be aspired to, to someone to be distanced from, to sentimentalized, but in the 80s good films captured parental figures as flawed, honest people.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Filmish: A Graphic Journey through Film (CBR8 #70)

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I’m a relatively omnivorous reader. I read a little bit of almost everything (high fantasy, horror,  and poetry seem to be my blind spots). A quick survey of my non-fiction shows that I have an interest in movies, film history, and Classic Hollywood. My podcast listening backs that up as well, being as I follow You Must Remember This and Fighting in the War Room. Through one of my  favorite podcast listens, A Storm of Spoilers, I was introduced to Filmish and immediately put it on my to read, even though I have a spotty history with graphic nonfiction, graphic novels, and comics.

I am pleased to report that this book was awesome. Neil was right.

In Filmish, Ross’s cartoon alter ego serves as tour guide for us through cinematic history (a little like The Great Movie ride at Disney), and he introduces us to some of the stranger and more intriguing concepts at work in the movies. In short, we get the history of film through seven topics: The Eye; The Body; Sets & Architecture; Time; Voice & Language; Power & Ideology; and Technology & Technophobia. Each chapter attacks its concept chronologically, using different movies to fully explore an introduction to film theory. Ross uses many movies which are familiar to the non-connoisseur, and peppers in plenty of lesser known, but influential works to add to your to watch list. This is definitely Film Theory 101, but with the great artwork, the full, but not overstuffed pages, and the detailed end notes which suggest further reading and watching, this is truly a great resource for those looking to be entertained, and a learn a little something along the way.

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

It Ended Badly (CBR8 #65)

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This book has reviewed several times for the Cannonball Read and is how it ended up on my radar at all (which is how oh so many books end up in front of me). I am a history nerd so a rundown of thirteen historical relationships that did not end well sounded great to me. I have to tell you, I slammed through this book in two sittings.

Quick review: a witty, friendly, informally written but well informed gathering of information that you should absolutely read as a palate cleanser or any other quick read format.

Longer review: All of the above is true, but that doesn’t mean that this book isn’t without its flaws. There are flaws. The tone of this book worked for me perfectly. This is not intended to be a serious historical monograph, this is a longform listicle. AND THAT’S OKAY. Any author who uses parenthetical asides to share personal information about themselves or point out the only time we are likely to feel sympathy for a historical figure is my kind of author. But I understand that this is not for everyone.

The thing that has me rounding this book down to a three star rating instead of the four stars many others have given is that while I was entertained, there were definitely chapters which went on much too long. Looking at you Henry VIII. That’s a well-known tidbit, those two beheadings, we could have moved along. The Nero, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Timothy Dexter, and Edith Wharton chapters were the most interesting to me personally. Eleanor rocks, Nero and Dexter were crazypants, and Wharton just made me sad for her and reminded me I still need to read and/or watch Age of Innocence. You can bet that’s going on our vote for the next Cannonball Read Book Club (voting for Classics with movie/TV adaptations should happen sometime around October 15…)

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Underground Girls of Kabul (CBR8 #58)

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I don’t remember exactly what caught my eye about this book, if it was the cover, the blurb, the title itself, janniethestrange’s review on Cannonball Read, or any other of the many things which could have done it. But I know that I probably plopped it on to my to read list simply because I know what I don’t know, and I don’t know much about Afghanistan, even though the American war there started as I was coming into my adulthood and had definite opinions about why we were there (don’t we all when we’re young?).

But this interesting non-fiction work is not about the war. It’s not even about any of the previous wars which have landed in this country. It is instead about the ways in which the residents of that country have worked around the very patriarchal system and the cultural expectations of having sons. In a deeply researched work, which quite clearly took years, Nordberg endeavors to tell the story of several bacha posh who have all been raised as boys, and some who continue to live that reality past puberty.

While I am overwhelmed with the weight of the work that Nordberg has done, I feel the first half of the book treads the same territory again and again, and was at times a slog of a read. The second half, and where she truly starts to bring in the big picture ideas of how societies create the need for the bacha posh, and how well-meaning foreign aid is often counterproductive, is where Nordberg’s ability shows.

I’m glad to have read this book, and have this look into a culture I am unfamiliar with otherwise.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe (CBR8 #29)

Listen, this is a very good book. It just wasn’t the droid I was looking for. Well, more accurately it was the droid I was looking for, but he brought along his annoying protocol droid buddy who bothered me with information about himself (wow, I think I just made a reference that equates a book about George Lucas to C-3PO… I am such a nerd).

After reading the great reviews of this book by emmalita and narfna, I quickly added it to my library waitlist. After my viewing of The Force Awakens, a book that explored the cultural aspects of a fandom which spread from a galaxy far, far away sounded truly interesting.  This book absolutely delivers on that promise, but I also got an incredibly comprehensive accounting of the life of George Lucas and his creative process. You know what I discovered while reading this book? I don’t give a damn about George Lucas. It’s not something he did (Special Editions not withstanding), but more that I don’t find the man very interesting. His creative mind has brought me some of my favorite things, and some of my most despised (THX 1183 anyone? I just don’t get it). It’s more that I find him dull and his apparent inability to create without suffering, or refusal to create for others, to be a less than satisfactory read.

What I ended up doing was skimming the Lucas-focused chapters, because I actually knew a lot about his personal history and famous friendships which impacted his career (Coppola and Spielberg, notably). But, there were always nuggets of interest in each chapter that I didn’t yet know.

However, this book won me back to singing its praises in its second half. What I discovered, and what author Chris Taylor lays out on the page, is that the time period I was really interested in didn’t truly start until the mid to late 1990s. Ah-ha! Problem solved. Here’s the explosion of fan interest which I grew up with. I wasn’t alive for the first two Star Wars movies, and I never read anything in the Expanded Universe (I know! Novelizations have not been something which was ever really on my radar), but the 501st? Now we’re talking.

But I am only rating this book three stars, compared to higher ratings you’ll see nearly everywhere else. Why? Because while Taylor obviously spent a great deal of time crafting *the* work on the subject, it was just too dense for me and moved too slowly (I probably would have been served waiting to listen to this on audio instead of lunging into it in hardback). You will most likely enjoy this book much more than me, but I suggest thinking through the following criteria: 1. Do you LOVE Star Wars? 2. How much George Lucas is too much George Lucas? And finally, 3. How in the mood are you for a very detailed 400-page book of non-fiction? If you answer those three questions with: 1. SO MUCH, 2. I can stand a lot of Mr. Lucas, and 3. That sounds like the best thing ever, you’ll enjoy this book. I suggest reading it soon, as the secretive nature of the lead up to Episode VII led to a lot of forecasting and “who knows?” from Taylor, and now we do know – so his book is going to start to become dated as the Anthology movies start rolling out this winter.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

All About Love: New Visions (CBR8 #26 – Half Cannonball!)

I came to All About Love: New Visions via The Shared Shelf group over on Goodreads (its Emma Watson’s Feminist book club). I didn’t read the February selection, but I thought this one, the March selection, sounded like a good idea. Written in 1999, All About Love is a series of interconnected non-fiction essays by bell hooks where she endeavors to explain how our everyday understandings of giving and receiving love often fail us.

I’ll admit, I was left cold in the first few chapters. I feel that’s probably because I’ve already done a lot of work (not that there isn’t always more to do) about not accepting that which is not love, and choosing to live my life in the act of providing love to others, which hooks covers in her first three chapters. Hooks also writes about how the ideals surrounding what love is, and what we accept as love, are established in early childhood. For many, this might be the single most important take away from the book:  that abuse and love cannot coexist. It’s simultaneously a beautiful and heartbreaking statement, and the crux of much that comes after.

The chapters which most affected me most personally were in the middle of the book Chapters 8-10 provided the most moments for me to chew on. Whether it be how research is indicating that small, nuclear, patriarchal family units are unhealthy (I would love to find some follow up research to that idea 15 years out), or how so-called self-help texts of the era really just normalized a certain amount of sexism, I couldn’t help but feel that hooks was continuing to unpack big ideas, but sometimes her authorial voice wavered. When she was on, her voice felt like a revelation. But when her authorial voice is off, when she’s perhaps leaning too heavily on the works of others that have influenced her path of self-actualization, that’s when the book can feel sermon-like, and occasionally hard to swallow.

What I found really profound, and perhaps reaffirming of my own life, is that hooks challenges the prevailing notion that romantic love is the most important love of all. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t cover romantic love, there are a couple chapters which deal with it head on, but this work is about more than partnered love. However, her insights on that topic are also worth having a look at.

 “Few of us enter romantic relationships able to receive love.” (169)

“Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” (172)

“Wounded hearts turn away from love because they do not want to do the work of healing necessary to sustain and nurture love.” (187)

Being that hooks set up her work to follow love through the process of life, it is natural that her book ends with chapters about loss and destiny. I have suffered the loss of many people in my life, including my father, so the chapters at the end of the book dealing with loss and healing were areas that didn’t resonate as strongly for me, since I was past or had gone through much of what hooks was discussing.

This book was read and reviewed as a part of the charitable Cannonball Read.