Books: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World

 

Sisters in Law:  How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in Law is a bit of a misnomer as the reader discovers over the course of this book which chronicles how each woman achieves her respective Supreme Court seat.  The two women sat on the Supreme Court together and respected each other but weren’t particularly close. The author traces the history of each woman to the highest court in the land.  Sandra Day O’Conner graduated from law school to find that the only opportunity offered to her was a job as a legal secretary because no law firm believed that their clients would want a woman representing them.  She ultimately rose to become the first woman on the Supreme Court by being a master politician; first becoming a powerful state legislator and later a Federal judge.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a brilliant woman who faced a great deal of the same type of discrimination coming out of law school as O’Conner did.  She taught law at Rutgers and worked cases for the ACLU, making an impact on many gender discrimination cases slowly making her way up the legal hierarchy until she could obtain a judgeship and later became the second woman on the Supreme Court.  At every step along the way, both women faced discrimination in a male dominated profession.

For those who are interested in Supreme Court and/or modern American history, the book has a lot of fascinating legal cases and is certainly relevant given the current political environment. In fact, one of the cases talked about in detail (the Hobby Lobby case) is a case that the current Supreme Court nominee was involved with.   It must be said that Ms. Hirshman’s liberal political views transcend the pages and it is obvious she is a strong feminist and aligned with the judicial philosophy of Ginsberg.  She is not an advocate of most of O’Conner’s positions and gives almost begrudging support to the Justice.

Despite the author’s obvious biases, she is able to show how the two justices   respected and supported each other and when O’Conner retired, Ginsburg was lonely as the only female on the court.  Both women are depicted as strong individuals who broke one of the last great glass ceilings.  While the O’Connor’s and Ginsburg’s were not close friends outside of work, the Ginsburg’s and Scalia’s spent a great deal of time together – arguably the courts most liberal and conservative justices.  It would have been interesting for the author to explore why the bond with Scalia was so much stronger than with O’Conner.  If you are interested in these two female justices and their impact on history, you will likely enjoy this book despite some if it’s flaws.

 

Books: Philippa Gregory’s Three Sisters, Three Queens and the new Bohjalian Short Story: The Premonition

 

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

I have read most of the books in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor and Plantagenet series.  They are usually relatively short, fast paced and an enjoyable way to learn more about the lesser known royals in an important time in English history.  So, with anticipation, I purchased Gregory’s latest, Three Sisters, Three Queens which focuses on Margaret Tudor and her relationship with her “sisters” Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor.  It turned out to be one of my least favorite books written by Gregory.

First, it is way too long at close to 600 pages and if the subject had been a little more likeable, that might have worked out.   However, Margaret was depicted by the author as selfish, competitive and the biggest whiner in royal history – a thoroughly contemptable person.  While the whining eased off a bit in the second half of the book, I was so sick of this Queen by the time I got there, I was disengaged.  I found it intriguing  in the epilogue that the author said that there is very little source material on Margaret so I guess this personality was developed by the Gregory based on a scarcity of information.  Given that, I’m not sure why she chose to make her so miserable.

Margaret is Henry VIII’s sister.  She is married off to the King of Scotland who dies early in the book but not before Margaret bore him a male heir.  She then takes up with a young Scottish nobleman and marries him but he proves to be rather treacherous, and is  unfaithful to her.  This becomes an even worse situation for her because Henry takes her husband’s side and makes Margaret’s life miserable.  She loses custody of her children, is bounced around and she doesn’t get much support from Kathryn of Aragon who obviously has her own problems or her sister Mary.  There is also a long litany of stillborn children and infant deaths.  It’s all pretty grim in the 1500s trying to conceive, birth and raise a healthy offspring – particularly a Tudor heir.

I don’t have much knowledge of the Kings of Scotland and that part of the story kept me reading.  Unfortunately, the book would have been much better if had been a couple of hundred pages shorter and Margaret wasn’t such an unappealing, spoiled whiner.  Hopefully the subject of Gregory’s next book will be more appealing.

The Premonition by Chris Bohjalian

The Premonition is a short story prequel to Bohjalian’s upcoming book “The Sleepwalker”.  It showed up on one of my many suggested book lists and because the price was right on Amazon, I purchased it.  I enjoy Bohjalian’s books and this one, like so many of his others, is set in Vermont where I have spent a good deal of time and enjoy reading about. I assume the job of “The Premonition” is to engage readers enough so they purchase the Sleepwalker and it did the job for me.  Lianna is a teenager who occasionally gets “premonitions” and has a mother who sleepwalks.  There is enough mystery and intrigue to wet my appetite for the longer novel and I’ll be pre-ordering the Sleepwalker even though the slight tinge of the supernatural has me just a little concerned that the Sleepwalker might be one of Bohjalian’s more “out there” novels.

If you like Bohjalian and are anxiously awaiting his next book, take a look at the Premonition.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Books: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance 

There were two things I did in the days following the Presidential election – watch Michael Moore’s “Michael Moore in Trumpland” and read “Hillbilly Elegy” – to try and understand what happened.  As a amateur historian, I desperately wanted to study the voting trends and analyze which issues resonated with various groups of Americans.  Both the documentary and the book provided insight in to the themes that resonated with “Rustbelt” voters.

Hillbilly Elegy is an extraordinary book detailing the life of J.D. Vance who came from the hills of Kentucky/ Ohio, through the Marines to graduate from Yale Law School and become a successful Silicon Valley executive. His world growing up was one of broken families, drug addiction, poverty, lack of education and welfare. How he succeeded in escaping the downward spiral of poverty and all the influences that should have kept him from being successful is what the author sets out to explain. Vance also tries hard to understand the broader white working class and how their position within the socio-economic hierarchy  has evolved. He questions whether we can ever escape our class and upbringing even which has impacted him throughout his life.

Ultimately, it was J.D. Vance’s “mean”, gun-toting, hillbilly grandmother who took him in during high school and focused him on grades and school. Although lacking  a high school education, she was able to provide the stability to his life that he craved.  The Marines continued his development by instilling in him the life skills he would need to pursue college and a job. By the time he got to Yale Law School, he realized that he was in an alien world for which he was completely unprepared. With the help of some caring Professors, friends and his girlfriend (who later became his wife), he was able to successfully complete his schooling and embark on a professional career but he always felt that his roots and relationships were back home in the working class town he grew up in.

Vance is apparently fairly conservative. It comes through intermittently  in the book although he isn’t a supporter of Trump. He was all over TV in the days following the election, as was  Michael Moore, being quizzed on why the white working class Rustbelt population voted the way they did. What becomes clear in Hillbilly Elegy is that the thousands of people who migrated from the Kentucky mines to the Ohio factories briefly experienced a middle class life only to be left behind again when the factories left and are voting for someone to change their lives. Eight years ago, it was Obama. This year it was Trump or Bernie Sanders. The status quo won’t help them and it is unclear as to who or what can.

Vance asks important questions, and provides a great deal of insight into the world of the working class whites with low levels of  education and once were able to thrive in a manufacturing environment. What he doesn’t have, are answers on how to make their existence better. These middle-class manufacturing jobs aren’t going to come back. Many of the people living in these abandoned communities have never worked or if they have, it is a checkered history. There isn’t the motivation to work and many turn to welfare, drug addiction or both. Failure begets failure and how to raise this class of people back up to a middle class existence is a huge challenge for all involved. Like Vance’s grandmother, this group, depending on their mood can be “radically conservative” or “European-style Democrat” as they look for help. Hillbilly Elegy is a book everyone should read in order to understand this forgotten class of Americans.  It is also applicable to our inner cities and any other segment of our society existing in poverty with little hope for the future.

 

 

Books: Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

 

Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like this but it is a book club selection so I didn’t really have a choice. It was a fast read which is probably the biggest positive for me. The story itself is mostly about Clara, a young woman in 1911 who escapes the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in NYC. Unfortunately, a young man named Edward that she meets only 2 weeks prior to the fire does not. She spends the rest of the book pining over him, which causes the reader to want to shake her and tell her to get on with her life. Clara , suffering from PTSD or its 1911 equivalent, escapes to Ellis Island where she nurses immigrants too sick to be allowed on shore. She meets Andrew, a young man whose wife of 2 weeks died on the voyage to America and Ethan, a Doctor on the Island and they both slowly become part of her life. She can’t decide what her feelings are for either in a frustrating ride for the reader (refer back to pining for Edward).

Occasionally interspersed with Clara’s story is that of Taryn who is in the present and lost her husband on 9/11. It seems like every book I read these days goes back and forth in time and between characters. The technique must be taught in every creative writing class in the country. In the best books, it works but in an average book like this, it is tiresome. Last week I actually read a book where every chapter was in chronological order. It was heaven but I digress. Let’s get back to Taryn who has never recovered emotionally from the loss of her husband Kent and Clara still mourning Edward.   Connecting both women’s stories is a scarf with marigolds on it that originally belonged to Andrew’s wife Lily and ultimately ends up with Taryn. She loses the scarf during the chaos of 9/11 but ultimately it comes back to her along with the man who rescued her. The scarf represents love lost and found again I guess as in the end everyone lives happily ever after.  The stories are very lightweight, predictable and contrived. If you are looking for a slightly romantic novel (there is a lot of holding men at bay in this book) that you can read quickly without thinking too hard then this might be the novel for you. If not, feel free to skip it.

Books: The Trespasser by Tana French

 

The Trespasser by Tana French 

If you like crime novels and have not read Tana French, you need to. Her sixth novel, The Trespasser, came out a couple of weeks ago and is excellent. All of her novels take place in Dublin and have one or two members of the Dublin Murder squad investigating them.. She generally uses different detectives for each of the books keeping her characters fresh and interesting. The Washington Post calls her “the most interesting, the most important crime novelist to emerge in the last ten years” and “her work renders absurd the lingering distinction between genre and literary fiction”.

In her new book the Trespasser, Ms. French uses two detectives, Antoinette Conway and Stephan Moran, who first appear in her novel the Secret Place. They are called out to investigate a seemingly routine death of a young woman in her apartment. The death appears to be a straightforward accident/murder with the girl’s boyfriend as the primary suspect. Both detectives are unhappy that they don’t get something more interesting/important to investigate but go at it with professional integrity.  The evidence is all circumstantial so the detectives pursue a number of other leads, many of which take them down rabbit holes.  After many false leads, they eventually discover a potential cover-up by some of the more senior members of the murder squad.

Conway, the only woman on the squad is constantly harassed and threatened along the way which makes her think about quitting. It also becomes clear that one of the most experienced detectives is thwarting her investigation and trying to get her to stop following the various leads and just arrest the boyfriend.  Her reaction to all of this is to have an immense chip on her shoulder and think that every member of the squad is out to get her. Ultimately Antoinette is vindicated in this psychological thriller.  Despite the fact that Antoinette is persona non grata in the squad, her attitude gets somewhat tiresome after a while and makes Antoinette not very likable. However, one certainly can’t fault the brilliant character development achieved by the author in creating a very complex female detective.

Ms. French’s writing is award winning and the way she unravels crimes in her novels is exceptional. My only reservations with the Trespasser are the length (it drags a bit in the middle and is definitely a slow burn) and how unappealing Antoinette Conway is. I don’t recall the same issue in “Secret Place” however her role wasn’t as front and center. The novel is another winner by a really great author. If you haven’t read her, try her first novel, In the Woods, which won a number of awards including the Edgar. My favorite novel is “Faithful Place” and the only book I’d skip is “the Likeness”.  I’ll be anxiously awaiting her next novel – hopefully it won’t take more than a couple of years.

 

Books: “The Worst Hard Time” – a view view into our future?

 

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan 

If you think the “Grapes of Wrath” was depressing, try “The Worst Hard Time”, the story of the great dust bowl disaster of the 1930s. Unlike the Joads who escaped Oklahoma for California during this period, many of the homesteaders in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle stayed and Timothy Egan tells their story. It is a history book told in the form of a novel and chronicles several families who first came to the area as homesteaders and remained through one of the worst environmental disasters ever.

Egan is not shy about blaming the government for giving away the prairie land that was once the home of Native Americans and buffalo only to have it “destroyed” by farmers. The homesteaders plowed under millions of acres of grassland and planted crops – mostly wheat – that after a few profitable years withered and died in the drought of the 1930s. Without the prairie grasses to hold the soil down, huge dust storms blew the soil away throughout the thirties. FDR finally provided some assistance to the farmers who lost everything and engaged the best scientists of the time to help conserve the land for the future. There were a few successes but the efforts were mostly futile and millions of acres of land are still dead today.

I found Mr. Egan’s technique of trying to follow a number of families over this period somewhat confusing and as the book got more and more depressing, I felt like it was suffocating me as the dust did to the homesteaders.  I also thought that my background as an American History major and having read Steinbeck’s novel that I knew a fair amount about this period.   I still learned a lot. While there is no happy ending, I found the book’s focus on the scientific aspects of the Dust Bowl period fascinating.  I suspect, that because it is a non-fiction account that doesn’t read like one, this book has replaced “The Grapes of Wrath” in many classrooms. If you are interested in Modern American history, this book offers an important glimpse into the 1930s in a much more palatable way then a straight history book. It succeeds in answering not just the “what” but the “why” of history and one wonders if it is a look into our future with the impact of climate change.

TV: “American Experience: The Boys of ’36 ” – the story of the boys in the boat

TV: American Experience: The Boys of ’36 (PBS, Itunes)

First of all, if you have never read the book “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, you have to do so immediately. It is one of the best books I have ever read and chronicles the uplifting story of the University of Washington crew team, which took the Gold Medal in the 1936 Olympics. Whether or not you have, you can watch a short one-hour documentary on the story of “the boys” which originally aired at the beginning of August on PBS. I missed “The American Experience: The Boys of ‘36” while on vacation and was unable to find it on my local cable “On Demand” service so I rented it ($3.99) from ITunes.

The documentary relies heavily on Daniel James Brown, Timothy Egan who wrote “The Worst Hard Time” (next on my reading list), a few rowing historians and a ton of original footage. Heretofore I had seen only the official Berlin Olympic photographer Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the race, which focused primarily on the German and Italian crews. The documentary footage (likely also from Riefenstahl) showed the Americans for more of the 6 ½ minute race. In addition, there is great footage of some of the Washington collegiate races, practices and for you U- Dub fans, lots of photos of the buildings and area as it was in the 30s. You also get a great feel for just how popular rowing was at the time and the thousands of people who turned out at these rowing venues for races.

This is an epic story that highlights interviews with some of the children of the participants telling their father’s stories along with Daniel James Brown’s commentary. To be able to see film of all the key players after reading the book was really terrific and made them come to life for me. It is an hour well spent to watch the courage and fortitude of these rowers who despite all odds achieved the greatest honor in rowing at the time and made Hitler unhappy in the process. The story of the “Boys of ‘36” is one of heart and achieving goals with every obstacle imaginable put in front of them. These boys came from humble origins in the severely depressed Pacific Northwest of the 30s and with the help of a difficult coach and inspirational boat builder beat the best crews in the world.

See “The American Experience: The Boys of ‘36” and read “The Boys in the Boat”.