mini-review · stuff I read

The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes by Frank Bures

Summary from Goodreads:
Jon Ronson meets David Grann in this fascinating, wildly entertaining adventure and travel story about how culture can make us go totally insane

The Geography of Madness is an investigation of “culture-bound” syndromes, which are far stranger than they sound. Why is it, for example, that some men believe, against all reason, that vandals stole their penises, even though they’re in good physical shape? In The Geography of Madness, acclaimed magazine writer Frank Bures travels around the world to trace culture-bound syndromes to their sources—and in the process, tells a remarkable story about the strange things all of us believe.

While I was traveling to and from Book Riot Live, I read Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.  I was really intrigued with the way a non-Westernized culture viewed illness and how those views clashed with the medical establishment.  So when I saw Melville House (a favorite publisher) was putting out a book about culture-bound syndromes – those conditions that seem to exist in the psychology of a culture that contribute physical morbidity or mortality – I was immediately interested.

The Geography of Madness begins as Bures is searching through Lagos, Nigeria, for someone to talk to him about “penis theft” – yes, that’s a thing, and it’s generally been covered in the Western media with ridicule so Bures has a bit of trouble getting someone to admit it has happened to them.  He also visits rural areas of China searching for sufferers of similar types of syndromes and practitioners who treat them.  In between Bures discusses his own life living outside the US and the culture-shock he has felt.

This wasn’t the book I was looking for – I was looking for something with more science and less memoir.  However, the concept is very interesting, how our cultural beliefs play upon the mind and body to create syndromic diseases with physical symptoms that are unique to time and place.  The syndromes don’t have to be fantastical, either.  Bures cites syndromes like “lower back pain” – which can have myriad causes and manifestations – where the incidence varies from country to country even among those populations with shared cultural backgrounds (the US vs Germany, for instance).

I could have done without constant comment on whether the brown and/or non-US people he communicated with spoke quality English. That got annoying.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton

Summary from Goodreads:
Margaret the First dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, and wildly unconventional 17th-century Duchess. The eccentric Margaret wrote and published volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian science fiction at a time when “being a writer” was not an option open to women. As one of the Queen’s attendants and the daughter of prominent Royalists, she was exiled to France when King Charles I was overthrown. As the English Civil War raged on, Margaret met and married William Cavendish, who encouraged her writing and her desire for a career. After the War, her work earned her both fame and infamy in England: at the dawn of daily newspapers, she was “Mad Madge,” an original tabloid celebrity. Yet Margaret was also the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London—a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution—and the last for another two hundred years.

Margaret the First is very much a contemporary novel set in the past, rather than “historical fiction.” Written with lucid precision and sharp cuts through narrative time, it is a gorgeous and wholly new narrative approach to imagining the life of a historical woman.

Back when I thought I was going to back and pick up a PhD in literature (as one does), I took a graduate-level course in Restoration literature. Included in the reading list was this very curious piece of writing, The Blazing World.  It was written by one Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, and is considered to be the one of the first science fiction genre novels.  So when Liberty mentioned there was this new historical novel based on Margaret’s life you can bet I was all over that in a hot second.

Margaret the First is a gorgeous historical novel, so very lush for such a slim book (also that beautiful cover). I really loved how Dutton managed to combine her own prose and imagining of Margaret’s inner life with that of Margaret’s own writing – and Margaret started writing and publishing because her husband was broke (penniless Royalists were not uncommon at the time, but Margaret was a bestselling writer who miraculously kept them afloat). There’s a great deal of attention paid to the fact that Margaret cannot do the one thing expected of her – settle down and be a baby-making factory – and all the really ghastly treatments that she and her husband William go through to boost their fertility (which probably made everything worse). All that sort of distills into the visions Margaret has that find their way into her writing. What would she have created had she been given the education men received?

Go order this beautiful book – out from Catapult Press.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

Bronte For All · mini-review · stuff I read

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

Summary from Goodreads:
A groundbreaking biography that places an obsessive, unrequited love at the heart of the writer’s life story, transforming her from the tragic figure we have previously known into a smoldering Jane Eyre.

Famed for her beloved novels, Charlotte Brontë has been known as well for her insular, tragic family life. The genius of this biography is that it delves behind this image to reveal a life in which loss and heartache existed alongside rebellion and fierce ambition. Claire Harman seizes on a crucial moment in the 1840s when Charlotte worked at a girls’ school in Brussels and fell hopelessly in love with the husband of the school’s headmistress. Her torment spawned her first attempts at writing for publication, and the object of her obsession haunts the pages of every one of her novels–he is Rochester in Jane Eyre, Paul Emanuel in Villette. Another unrequited love–for her publisher–paved the way for Charlotte to enter a marriage that ultimately made her happier than she ever imagined. Drawing on correspondence unavailable to previous biographers, Harman establishes Brontë as the heroine of her own story, one as dramatic and triumphant as one of her own novels.

Charlotte Brontë seems to be having a moment right now.  Jane Austen has had the market on fandom for a while but Charlotte’s gaining some ground (Re-Jane and Jane Steele are both on Mt. TBR).  And this includes a new biography from Claire Harman.

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is a very readable biography of Charlotte that concentrates on her intellectual and emotional life and how her experiences translated (sometimes word-for-word) into her novels.  And she is one interesting lady, no lie. Harman was allowed access to many letters that had only recently been published for the first time which recasts some events in Charlotte’s life, including her death. Even as well-versed as I am in Brontë biography, this was a treat to read.  I loved it – and if I Instagram or Litsy (hi, y’all! Have we made Litsy-ing a verb yet?) my annotations you know I am into it.

As a bonus, Harman also included Emily and Anne in the biography since their lives were so closely intertwined with Charlotte’s (and Branwell, unfortunately…ugh, that dude should have been dropped in a vat of spiders, what a spoiled brat).

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thank you thank you!)

PS: I haven’t read her Jane Austen biography, yet, and now I really want to!

mini-review · stuff I read

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah

Summary from Goodreads:
Scientists agree that a pathogen is likely to cause a global pandemic in the near future. But which one? And how?

Over the past fifty years, more than three hundred infectious diseases have either newly emerged or reemerged, appearing in territories where they’ve never been seen before. Ninety percent of epidemiologists expect that one of them will cause a deadly pandemic sometime in the next two generations. It could be Ebola, avian flu, a drug-resistant superbug, or something completely new. While we can’t know which pathogen will cause the next pandemic, by unraveling the story of how pathogens have caused pandemics in the past, we can make predictions about the future. In Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, the prizewinning journalist Sonia Shah—whose book on malaria, The Fever, was called a “tour-de-force history” (The New York Times) and “revelatory” (The New Republic)—interweaves history, original reportage, and personal narrative to explore the origins of contagions, drawing parallels between cholera, one of history’s most deadly and disruptive pandemic-causing pathogens, and the new diseases that stalk humankind today.

To reveal how a new pandemic might develop, Sonia Shah tracks each stage of cholera’s dramatic journey, from its emergence in the South Asian hinterlands as a harmless microbe to its rapid dispersal across the nineteenth-century world, all the way to its latest beachhead in Haiti. Along the way she reports on the pathogens now following in cholera’s footsteps, from the MRSA bacterium that besieges her own family to the never-before-seen killers coming out of China’s wet markets, the surgical wards of New Delhi, and the suburban backyards of the East Coast.

By delving into the convoluted science, strange politics, and checkered history of one of the world’s deadliest diseases, Pandemic reveals what the next global contagion might look like— and what we can do to prevent it.

I think Pandemic was pretty good. I do like how Shah tried to organize the material into chapters according to the ways infectious diseases take advantage of human behaviors to spread into pandemics. However, that meant the narrative ping-ponged around between different diseases and often felt too disjointed for my taste. More distinction should have been made between the different modes of transmission of the different agents (she did cover cholera fairly extensively). I have a lot more “insider baseball” information packed into my head on this subject so can fill in detail better.

(If you’re interested in a real-time example of many ideas in this book, look up the news and medical articles surrounding the current health crisis surrounding Zika virus.  Also, David Quammen’s Spillover is an excellent take on the same topic.)

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read · translation

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Summary from Goodreads:
Once you let a book into your life, the most unexpected things can happen…

Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds that Amy’s funeral has just ended. Luckily, the townspeople are happy to look after their bewildered tourist—even if they don’t understand her peculiar need for books. Marooned in a farm town that’s almost beyond repair, Sara starts a bookstore in honor of her friend’s memory.

All she wants is to share the books she loves with the citizens of Broken Wheel and to convince them that reading is one of the great joys of life. But she makes some unconventional choices that could force a lot of secrets into the open and change things for everyone in town. Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a warm, witty book about friendship, stories, and love.

1. Book about loving books…yes!
2. Books help people overcome problems…yes!
3. Book set in Iowa…YES!

Ok, I was so down for this book when The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was pitched to me.  A book about books! Set in Iowa!  Yes, yes, yes.

And it is a very sweet, feel-good read with hits of 84 Charing Cross Road, Chocolat, and the movie Green Card (which gets an oblique reference). Directionless outsider brings books to a small town and finds love.  It’s a basic plot that works.

However, being an Iowan (Cedar County, where the book is set, is directly east of where I live), I have to say that none of the Iowa characters in the book particularly sound like they’re from Iowa.  At all.  And Sara sounds exactly like them – she shouldn’t, given that she’s from Sweden. Maybe that’s an artifact of translation but Broken Wheel felt just…generic.  It’s like any old one-dimensional small town if you’ve read about small towns in a book.  There’s a town stoic-doesn’t-talk-much-love-interest, a town drunk, a town busybody, a town gossip, and a town hard-bitten-straight-talking-lady-who-runs-the-diner.  In addition, a few B-plots got crammed in there without much breathing room.

If you’re looking for a book set in “Iowa” – this really isn’t it.  The Bridges of Madison County, for all it’s faults, feels nailed into its setting.  It feels Iowan.  So does Shoeless Joe.  But Broken Wheel?  Not so much.

But if you’re just looking for a nice spring/beach read with a lot of fuzzy, warm feelings about books and reading with a happy ending?  This is your book.

Super side note: Iowa legalized gay marriage in April 2009, before the action of the book begins (there was a throw-away line that bothered me).

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Literature Book by DK Publishing

Summary from Goodreads:
A global look at the greatest works of Eastern and Western literature and the themes that unite them, for students and lovers of literature and reading.

The Literature Book is a fascinating journey through the greatest works of world literature, from the Iliad to Don Quixote to The Great Gatsby. Around 100 crystal-clear articles explore landmark novels, short stories, plays, and poetry that reinvented the art of writing in their time, whether Ancient Greece, post-classical Europe, or modern-day Korea.

As part of DK’s award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, The Literature Book uses infographics and images to explain key ideas and themes. Biographies of important authors offer insight into their lives and other writings, and a section on Further Reading details more than 150 additional works to explore.

Discover masterpieces from the world’s greatest authors, and explore the context, creative history, and literary traditions that influenced each major work of fiction with The Literature Book.

Series Overview: Big Ideas Simply Explained series uses creative design and innovative graphics, along with straightforward and engaging writing, to make complex subjects easier to understand. These award-winning books provide just the information needed for students, families, or anyone interested in concise, thought-provoking refreshers on a single subject.

The DK “Book” series, where they take a large concept and break it into chronological or technical parts with lots of pictures and graphics (“big ideas explained simply”), are really pretty books.  And they do look very helpful.

The Literature Book is a decent overview of major works of narrative (mostly) fiction and they do make an effort to get outside the European/North American focus. The infographics were really fun, I particularly enjoyed the one for Dante’s Inferno.  I wasn’t all that interested in the actual words or descriptions of the books – for something that claims to Explain Big Ideas Simply the editors used a lot of complicated phrases (what, exactly, is Literary Montage or meter/foot in poetry?  And don’t tell me to look in the glossary). So the book straddled a weird space between being for newbies and being for experienced readers.  I think this would be a good book for literature teachers as a classroom resource since they could then use it as jumping off points or for students to start research.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.