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.

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

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell

I said on the Twitters the other day that I don’t know whether I want to marry Ms. Vowell or be her when I grow up. But after finishing up this book and starting in on her next, Assassination Vacation, I think I just want to hang out with her and go on strange adventures on an irregular basis. She’s delightfully quirky, but I’m not sure I could actually be friends with her.

I picked this book up for many reasons, but the main ones are that Vowell has a new book out, I’ve never read one of her books, and I’ve heard that the new one is a little odder than her others so it made more sense to back up and wade into the pool that is Sarah Vowell. Whatever that means.

And let’s be honest, I loved it. It merited the Twitter mention as well as three quotes in a row on my Tumblr… I found myself cracking up in the middle of work and hoping that no one asked what was going on, because it would be too hard to explain.

Part of it is the subject matter… this book is a collection of essays mostly about politics and patriotism, which haven’t changed terribly much save in name in the last nine years. Vowell is a capital-D Democrat, so she spends a few essays proclaiming her love for Bill Clinton and Al Gore and her distaste for George W. Bush. But there’s no proselytizing, just an acknowledgement of her politics and her involvement in the political institution. And outside of politics proper, Vowell includes some essays about the underground lunchroom in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the current practice of declaring everyone a Rosa Parks, and playing that one basketball game in the arcade.

The other part is Sarah Vowell. I listened to the audiobook, which is primarily narrated by her, with brief cameos from others (like Stephen Colbert as Al Gore), and so each essay is imbued with Vowell’s inflections and emphases. Considering her often sarcastic nature, I can imagine that these essays might come across rather differently in print, so I’m glad I went in for the audio. It’s sort of like hanging out with Sarah Vowell, right?

Recommendation: Highly recommended, unless you’re smitten with George W. Bush.

Rating: 9/10
(A to Z Challenge)