Sisters in Law, by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in LawIf there’s one genre I read less than historical fiction, it’s nonfiction, and this book club pick is more or less historical nonfiction. Indeed, I was tempted to feign food poisoning and avoid this meeting altogether, but by the time food poisoning would have been a valid excuse, I had already read, finished, and kind of actually liked this book. Best laid plans and all that.

This is a relatively academic work of nonfiction (though not nearly as academic as a previous club pick), and a few members of the club are academic types, so from their comments I will say that if you read a lot of academic nonfiction this one may not be one of your favorites. But as a person whose nonfiction reads are generally limited to awesome pop-science nonfiction (yeah, Mary Roach!), this just seemed… different.

The obvious point of this book is to tell the stories of the first two female Supreme Court justices, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hirshman does a very quick trip to their childhoods at the beginning of the book, but the meat of the book starts with their respective law school careers. Hirshman talks about the sexism these ladies faced in attending law school only a few years apart, and how difficult it was for both of them (O’Connor more so) to get a foothold in the male-dominated world of law.

Then Hirshman gets to her real point of the book, which is to talk about the myriad legal cases argued and judged by the two women, as lawyers and later justices, that have to do with women’s rights. Hirshman lays out all of the equal-rights cases that Ginsburg helped put before the Court and how the results of those cases generally moved the rights argument forward, and also talks about how each of the ladies and their male counterparts voted and opined on these cases.

Since it’s the Supreme Court we’re talking about here, this actually gets pretty interesting as we see how the various justices vote on cases either with their respective leanings (conservative vs. liberal) or with the influence of justices on the other side. Each case plays into the next and it’s fascinating to see how justices who might not have voted a certain way on a case feel compelled to do so after seeing how other cases have set precedent. (Or, later, how they completely ignore precedent and start rolling back Court decisions, which is nuts.)

Hirshman does a pretty good job of making Supreme Court arguments and decisions accessible to people like me who almost actively avoid politics and history and boring things like that. There are a few places where she brings up a “famous” or “landmark” case and then assumes the reader knows what’s up, but generally there’s enough information to get by.

As I mentioned above, I am a big fan of the pop-science book of the sort where you have to stop reading every few minutes to let the people around you know a cool new fact you just learned. This book doesn’t have many of those cool new facts, but it did, for me, impart a new base of understanding the Court and politics in general, so that’s probably a good thing!

Recommendation: If you know a lot about the Supreme Court and/or O’Connor and Ginsburg, this is probably not the book for you. But for total newbs like me, this is a pretty decent read.

Weekend Shorts: Moar Audiobooks!

I really am liking having more time to do the audiobook thing now that I’ve killed off a few podcasts (and some have killed themselves off, sniff sniff). But I am going to run out of books I know I want to listen to soon, so if y’all have recommendations for memoirs (preferably funny ones) or nonfiction (preferably fact-filled and with a sense of humor), tell me tell me tell me!

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell
Unfamiliar FishesA few years ago, when I had a job at which I could listen to audiobooks all day long, I went on a quick Sarah Vowell bender and listened to three of her books all in a row. I loved her writing and her voice (literary and literal), but the binge was too much, I guess, and I never read her again. Until now!

This is another of her focused histories (like The Wordy Shipmates), and in it she talks about the history of Hawai’i and the white inhabitants who took it over. I didn’t know much about Hawai’i except that it’s, like, an island, and a state, so it was fascinating to find out that there have been Americans there since 1820, first doing the missionary thing and then totally taking over.

I learned many fun facts while listening to this book, most of which I promptly forgot, but I did come away with the sense that if I ever manage to make it out to Hawai’i, I’m going to end up forgoing the beach for trips to old missionary houses and obscure museums. I mean, let’s be honest, I’d probably do that anyway, but now I kind of want to go just to do that!

One note on the audio: there are a large number of guest voices on the audio, and I was excited to see how they would be used, but weirdly they are used only to read quotes from various historical figures. Each actor gets a few people to “be”, but then there are other people that Vowell has covered, and it was just kind of weird. Perhaps knowing this in advance will improve your listening experience?

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae
The Misadventures of Awkward Black GirlI don’t know what’s wrong with me. I hate memoirs, or I thought I did — apparently, listening to memoirs read by their authors is like the coolest thing ever. So even though I knew absolutely nothing about this book going in except that she’s apparently a funny YouTube person and that a friend of mine thought the book was pretty okay (I assume that’s what 3 stars on GoodReads equals), I was all for it.

And then I started the book, and I was like, holy crap. Turns out that Rae is the same age as me, and after listening to so many memoirs of people at least a few years older than me, it was sort of weird to hear someone talking about a childhood with computers. She starts off the book talking about writing stories on the computer and printing them off on dot-matrix paper and getting the Internet and being obsessed with chat rooms and learning how to stretch the a/s/l truth in PMs and I was like, um, I thought that was just me. So, fantastic start.

Her childhood seems very different from mine on a large scale, with her stories of moving cross-town, cross-country, and cross-world, and of growing up black in variously diverse neighborhoods. But of course it’s also similar, as she navigates friendships and school and being a super-awkward teenager. She writes about her parents’ failed marriage and how it affected her own relationships, and about chopping all her hair off and the freedom she felt with it gone, and about coworkers and how much they can suck. It’s not a particularly focused book, but it’s super fun and often hilarious and I am definitely going to have to check out Rae’s various webseries in the hopes that they will be the same.

The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel

The Astronaut Wives ClubI found myself facing a relatively short road trip, about 8 hours for the round trip, with only 10-hour plus audiobooks sitting around my house waiting to be listened to. So I loaded up all of the OverDrive collections I could get my hands on, searched for books I could listen to on my phone that were able to be downloaded immediately, and paged through all the results until I found something of the appropriate length and interest level. This was that book.

I have a mild interest in space and NASA and astronauts and the like, enough to spend a day at Kennedy Space Center with my rather more space-excited friends and enough to listen to and love Packing for Mars (though, really, it’s Mary Roach, I’m not not going to listen to that). But I moreso have an interest in the behind-the-scenes, stories-not-told aspect of basically everything, and this book definitely promised that. It was sold to me as a book about the wives of the first astronauts, the people who were stuck at home taking care of kids and houses while their husbands faced death in space, and I was super sold on that premise.

Unfortunately, this book fails in the execution. The biggest problem, I think, is that the book starts out as a collective biography of the wives of the Mercury Seven, which is already seven people to talk about for a whole book, and then keeps expanding to include the wives of the “New Nine” and “The Fourteen” and “The Original Nineteen” and it is so many wives, you guys. So many wives. So whereas at the beginning of the book you get actual information about Annie Glenn and Rene Carpenter and Betty Grissom and their histories as people and how they interacted with their husbands and the media and the fame in general, by a few chapters in the book is just about how “the wives” this and “the wives” that and it’s not so much about the wives any more as it is about the space program in general.

Which is the other big problem, I think — after letting us get to know those first wives and their rather interesting histories (some wives were also military or pilots or just generally career women who gave up their work for their husbands’), the book just kind of becomes a timeline of the space program and how Gus and John and Alan and whoever were off doing this launch or that launch and their wives were so worried or their wives were totally not worried or their wives were mad at them even though their very lives were in danger and it starts to become more about Dudes in Space than wives at home living their own lives.

I wanted to like this book, and I really did like this book in its focused, biography-of-some-cool-ladies beginning, but once it lost that focus I was only listening to it because I had nothing else ready to listen to. However, this will apparently be available as a TV show this summer, and I feel like that will be a much better medium for this story than the book was. I guess we’ll find out soon!

Recommendation: For those interested in the space program and the many, many people surrounding it.

Rating: 5/10

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

This is the last Sarah Vowell review for a while, I promise! It turns out that I can only take so much of the same kind of book. Also, I didn’t like this one very much, which is disappointing because I actually own the print version, but which is less disappointing because I only paid a dollar for it.

Anyway, this book is Sarah Vowell doing her Sarah-Vowell-iest to describe early Puritan America, specifically the set of Puritans that came over in 1630 to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There’s lots of stuff about religion, of course, and Indian relations, but mostly what I remember is the politics (of course) and the fine lines everyone had to walk to attempt to make this whole colony thing work.

And this is interesting, sure, but unfortunately it seems that I am less intrigued by Puritan politics in the 1630s than I am about current politics and presidential assassinations, and so I must admit that I didn’t pay that much attention to this audiobook. Well, except when Vowell went on her tangents — I will forever be amused by the idea of her explaining to her small nephew why the Puritans were still killing the Indians long after the “first Thanksgiving.” Poor kid; his aunt is ruining everything for him!

Also, I may try actually reading this one again in the future; I think that part of my problem here was the fact that I know so much less about this aspect of history than I do about presidents and politics, and so I kept getting all the Johns confused, among other difficulties. Maybe if I can flip back and forth to remember who everyone is, I’ll have a better time of it? Eh, give me a year or so and we’ll see. 🙂

Recommendation: For history lovers who don’t mind a little whimsy in their historical narratives.

Rating: 7/10

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

I mentioned re: The Partly Cloudy Patriot that I thought that Sarah Vowell’s sarcastic nature might come across better in audio form over print form, and I think this is where I can say that that’s true. I tried to read Assassination Vacation once before, a couple of years ago, and gave it up almost immediately for being odd and confusing. This time, though, I was better prepared and had Sarah Vowell reading it to me as it was meant to be read, and so it went down real smooth-like. Or whatever.

This book is similar to The Partly Cloudy Patriot in that it is a) about politics and b) liberally (ha!) sprinkled with Vowell’s personal anecdotes. It is, as you might guess, about various assassinated presidents (but not JFK), but it’s not so much about the assassinations themselves as about what the assassinations meant at that point in history and mean now and what happened as a result.

So, for example, Vowell talks about her favorite president, one Mr. Lincoln, and how his assassination was meticulously planned by Booth to happen on a laugh line to cover up the whole assassinating bit as much as possible. And then she talks about how Booth ran ostensibly without forethought toward a friend’s place, and moves into a personal anecdote about how she and a friend tried to follow Booth’s path, failing miserably even in a car with maps from MapQuest, like, come on, this was not an accidental hiding place.

In another amusing example, Vowell talks about Teddy Roosevelt succeeding the assassinated McKinley, and how he was out hiking in the Adirondacks when the whole dying thing was going on, and also how when a messenger from the White House came running up a mountain to find him and bring him back to Washington, Roosevelt was like, “Nah, I think I’ll eat some dinner first.” Priorities, right?

And then there was the only problem I had with this book as an audiobook… Charles Guiteau. He’s the guy what shot James Garfield, whose monument in Lake View Cemetery I adore, and it turns out that he is really really annoying. Every time the voice actor playing him started talking, I found myself moving my headphones away from my ears and just waiting for the annoying to stop so I could listen to Sarah Vowell again. Part of this was the shouty quality of the actor (of Guiteau?) and part just how insane Guiteau’s words were. He was a crazy person, I have found out.

But aside from Charles Guiteau, I quite liked this book. Assassinations are interesting creatures, and I liked the many and varied perspectives Vowell brought to them, from first-hand accounts of contemporaries to first-hand accounts of Vowell getting seasick on her way to the Dry Tortugas. Sometimes her tangents got a little out of hand, and sometimes she got too much into the minutiae of politics, but on the whole I think it struck a good balance.

Recommendation: For lovers of politics and murder most foul. Or just kind of foul, I guess, depending on your viewpoint.

Rating: 8/10