subject/verdict: stuff I've been reading in two-sentence reviews [no. 4]

I'm hovering at 10% behind on my GoodReads goal of 104 books for the year, which means I'm on track to accomplish 90% of my annual reading goal (go me!). Here's what I've been reading since the last installment of subject/verdict in mid-August.

Presented in order read.

Haskell, Molly. My Brother, My Sister: Story of a Transformation (Viking, 2013). As readers of this blog are already aware, this is a memoir by film critic Molly Haskell about her experience during her sister's transition from her gender assigned at birth (male) to her experienced gender (female). I was not impressed.

McGuire, Seanan. Chimes at Midnight (DAW Books, 2013). The seventh installment in the October Daye series (my personal favorite of Seanan McGuire's many projects) centers around the trafficking of faerie fruit and the overthrow of a kingdom. Toby and company naturally save the day, with the introduction of several delightful new characters, including a fae librarian!

Joyce, Kathryn. The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption (PublicAffairs, 2013). The author of Quiverfull returns to the topic of family formation and religious belief in her latest work on the adoption industry. While The Child Catchers is not a wholesale condemnation of modern adoption practices, it does challenge all of us to cast a critical eye on the rescue narrative that sanctifies adoptive parents and the industry that serves them -- often at the expense of children and birth parents.

Erzen, Tanya. Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It (Beacon Press, 2012). Erzen is a compassionate and insightful ethnologist of American subcultures, having last cast her eye on the experience of Christian women and men who participate in ex-gay ministries. In Fanpire she explores the fan experience of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight novels and the associated films, holding us to account for too-easy a dismissal of female fans.

McCarthy, Molly. The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America (University of Chicago Press, 2013). This excellent cultural and material history of personal record-keeping traces the development of the daily planner from Colonial almanacs through advertisement-laden Wanamaker planners popular into the mid-twentieth century. McCarthy skilfully blends in-depth research with a lively storytelling voice to produce a thought-provoking read.

Baumgardner, Jennifer and Madeline Kunin, eds. We Do! American Leaders Who Believe in Marriage Equality (Akashic Books, 2013). This brief collection of primary source documents (speeches, testimony, op-ed articles, interviews) tours through the history of American political leaders and social activists speaking out in favor of marriage equality. Beginning with a stump speech of Harvey Milk's from 1977 and President Bill Clinton's mea culpa regarding DOMA, penned in 2013, this collection would be a useful one for current affairs classes or adult study groups to discuss. Its brevity will be frustrating to the historians (many pieces are heavily excerpted), and it was strangely lacking in gender diversity. Out of 33 pieces, only eight were by women (including two appearances by Hillary Clinton). While the women they picked were undeniably well-spoken, high-profile leaders I can't help but wonder why the imbalance -- women like E.J. Graff and Urvashi Vaid were conspicuously absent. (Full disclosure: Early Reviewer copy from LibraryThing)

Jenkins, Philip. Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of the Eighties in America (Oxford University Press, 2006). This history of the long 1970s makes the argument that Reagan's presidency was not the radical, reactionary break many view it to be but in fact built upon a number of conservative (often fearful) American impulses that have their roots in the decade before. I appreciated his re-examination of what have become historical commonplaces, but felt at times he over-reached the evidence and/or justified the conservative response without fairly considering voices of dissent.

Sandage, Scott. Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press, 2005). Sandage traces the development of "the loser" as a character type in America, tying it to the nineteenth-century shift from an economy where low-risk conservation of family assets gave way to the ideal of endlessly-upward mobility: the opportunity of great gains also opened up the possibility for extreme loss. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Sandage convincingly argues that Americans more and more ascribed economic failure as an innate character flaw rather than an inevitability of the larger system -- though individuals would continue to push back against this hegemonic model.

Yglasias, Matthew. The Rent is Too Damn High: What to Do About It and Why It Matters More Than You Think (Simon & Schuster, 2012). This slim e-book makes the argument that most American housing policy -- particularly zoning regulations and rent controls -- have only conspired to increase rather than decrease the astronomical rents in areas where the majority of Americans are drawn by economic opportunity (Boston, New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco...). I remain skeptical of his optimism in the housing market to solve this problem (freed from regulations, he argues, they would build more high-density housing in high-demand areas and help bring the middle class back from the suburbs),  but I appreciate his thoughtful and well-argued analysis.

Roose, Kevin. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). When, as an undergraduate at Brown University, Roose decided to attend Liberty University as an unconventional off-campus semester many of his family and friends thought he was going to regret that decision: why spend a semester with religious fundamentalist evangelicals? Roose persevered, and wrote a soul-searching and at times quite funny (without being cruel) book about the subject that is generous to its conservative-Christian subjects without, I did not think, ultimately excusing the real harm their values can end up directly or indirectly supporting.

Satel, Sally and Scott Lilienfeld. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (Basic Books, 2013). This brief book examines the growing trend of attributing all matter of social phenomenon -- from crime to business administration -- to brain chemistry as "proved" by fMRI imaging. While fMRI scans have value, the authors argue, too often their highly-qualified results are taken as "proof" of things they prove not at all: their cautionary warning should be well-heeded.

Johnson, Colin. Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America (Temple University Press, 2013). Too often, histories of non-normative sexuality focus on urban centers, suggesting that rural America is a place of repression in which few "queer folks" survive -- let alone thrive. Johnson re-frames the story of queer American sexuality in the twentieth century with a series of case studies in rural sexual expression, offering us an under-explored piece of the puzzle of human sexual variety across the sweep of time and place.

Freeland, Chrystia. Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (Penguin: 2012). Canadian economic journalist Chrystia Freeland offers both a window into and critique of the lives of those whose wealth puts them in the 1% of the 1% -- and how they understand their position of power and privilege relative to the rest of us. While Plutocrats offers no easy answers to the global problem of hyper-stratification, it does offer a compelling argument that we ignore the accumulation of extreme wealth in the hands of a few at our own peril.

Morgan, Keith, Elizabeth Hope Cushing, and Roger Reed. Community by Design: The Olmsted Firm and the Development of Brookline, Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). In my haphazard quest to learn more about the history of my adopted habitat, I picked up this volume at the Brookline Public Library: Morgan, Cushing and Reed explore the Olmstead firm's influence in the development of one of Boston's oldest and most illustrious "suburb" villages (now surrounded on three sides by the city of Boston itself). More analysis could have been given to the class-consciousness woven into community development in the village, but overall it was a pleasure to get a better sense of how and when the neighborhoods we walk through every day came to be.

Mantel, Henriette, ed. No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood (Seal Press, 2013). As someone who will not (life-altering unknowns aside) be parenting, I approached this anthology with both interest and trepidation: too often, women are interrogated endlessly (in a way men are not) about their reproductive lives -- would this be another wince-inducing platform for the same? Like all anthologies, this one varies wildly from wince-inducing to humorous to insightful; while I didn't find myself experiencing any new insights, I do appreciate the attempt to normalize non-parents as part of the human family.

Serano, Julia. Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive (Seal Press, 2013). By now, Julia Serano is on my "automatic buy" list, and her latest work -- a compilation of previously-published pieces and new sections elaborating on the arguments those pieces are fumbling toward -- was well worth the self-indulgence. While at times her experiences of feminist- and queer-community exclusion made me want to suggest different friends, I also recognize that the identity-based "us" and "them" dynamics she incisively identifies and suggests alternatives to are systemic social justice activism problems.

McGuire, Seanan. Indexing (Kindle Serial, 2013). I gave this foray into novel serialization a try through our Kindle, with wholly satisfactory results. Seanan McGuire's lighthearted dark-and-heavy-if-you-squint tale of a crime-fighting unit who mop up after fairy tale "memetic incursions" introduces a whole new and compelling cast of characters to her repertoire -- looking forward to future installments!

Jordan, Pete. In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Harper Perennial, 2013). When Pete Jordan and his wife, both avid cyclists, move to Amsterdam so Pete can complete an urban planning degree, they fall in love with the city and its cycling culture -- Pete's wife even apprentices as a bike mechanic and eventually opens her own bike shop. In the City of Bikes weaves this personal story together with a fascinating history of cycling culture in Amsterdam -- and the Netherlands more broadly: a must-read for any cyclist in your life.

Knight, Sarah Kemble. The Journal of Madam Knight (D. R. Godine, 1971). In 1704, Boston businesswoman Sarah Knight traveled on horseback from Boston to New London, Connecticut, and on to New York City, to settle the estates of her brother and brother-in-law; pon her return she wrote up her experiences in a diary first published in 1825. Knight is one of the subjects of a series of encyclopedia articles I am writing this fall, and her diary was intriguing background research for her biographical entry.

Williams, Susan Reynolds. Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012). Another biographical entry for the encyclopedia, Alice Morse Earle was a nineteenth-century historian of American social and material history; Williams her most recent and comprehensive biographer. Despite the "assigned reading" aspect of picking up this title, I enjoyed the thoughtful exploration of a Gilded Age woman writer and the context in which she practice historical research and analysis.

Smith, Fran and Sheila Himmel. Changing the Way We Die: Compassionate End of Life Care and the Hospice Movement (Viva Editions, 2013). This slim volume written by two journalists explores the recent history and current practices of the hospice movement in America: non-profit and (more recently) for-profit organizations that assist individuals and their families experience holistic end-of-life palliative care. As an historian, I longed for deeper analysis of hospice's emergence in the mid-twentieth century, but overall this is a quick read that offers much food for thought and pointers for further research and contemplation.

Bronski, Michael, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico. "You Can Tell Just By Looking": and 20 Other Myths About LGBT Life and People (Beacon Press, 2013).  This quick read does not attempt any original or overarching argument, but rather repackages pro-LGBT talking points in plain language myth-and-discussion format, perhaps with the notion of offering a useful reading selection for an adult reading group or Sunday school series. I found the format slightly unwieldy, given the way anti-sexual-diversity scare stories build upon and reinforce one another symbiotically, but appreciate how nuanced and inclusive the authors nevertheless managed to be in their explanatory sections within the necessary limitations of the project.

Weil, Francois. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America (Harvard University Press, 2013). If there was one avenue into genealogy that was guaranteed to spark my interest, it would be a cultural historical analysis of the practice of family genealogy in America -- and Weil's detailed study did not disappoint. Weil explores the genealogical practices of Americans from the Colonial period to the late 20th century, neatly walking the tightrope of tension between genealogy-as-pedigree (a practice that seeks to reinforce privilege) and genealogy-as-identity (an assertion of more democratic familial allegiance or curiosity).

Bush, Karen, Louise Machinist and Jean McQuillian. My House, Our House: Living Far Better for Less in a Cooperative Household (St. Lynn's Press, 2013). This how-to guide tells the story of three women approaching retirement who decided to pool their resources and become householders in common. While their story did not offer me anything I didn't already know about cooperative housing opportunities and trends, it is always useful to read about cooperative housing schemes that have proven successful -- another blueprint to keep in our back pockets for the future.

Whew! That's all folks ... stay tuned in January for the next installment. Meanwhile, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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