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.

The Favored Daughter, by Fawzia Koofi

The Favored DaughterAfter nearly a year of reading pretty decent (and sometimes amazing) books for my online book club, I guess it was time for that law of averages to catch up with us…

Strike one against the book was the fact that it is a memoir. I am really bad at caring about people’s personal histories unless they are hilarious or really really well told, and this one is very much neither.

It is super depressing right from the beginning, with Koofi recalling her life as a small child in Afghanistan living with her mother and her father and all of his other wives and all of the assorted children, which is not depressing at all until her father is murdered and those who killed him come after her family, causing Koofi and her immediate family to flee their small town. This is all part of the ongoing struggles and wars in Afghanistan starting in the ’80s, and so Koofi finds herself moving around the country and losing family members more often than anyone really should.

But Koofi tries to put an uplifting spin on it, talking about how even as a lowly girl child she was able to go to school because her mother made sure of it even over the arguments from male relatives — at least until the Taliban came along and ruined everything for the female half of the population. Koofi still had her own personal powers and abilities, but she had to use them through those male relatives. And she did use them, to great advantage to herself, building a family and getting into politics and becoming a member of the Afghan parliament and winning over men who saw women as less than people.

This is the thrust of the book, I think — that even though Afghanistan was forcibly turned into a backwater country by the Taliban the people of Afghanistan are generally better and can be made to see progress and change if progress and change are allowed to happen. By extension, it is a book about how you need to just do the things you want to do or need to do whether people approve of it or not, because once it works out well people will approve of it. And this is a pretty good moral for a story.

But the path to getting there is torturous. I said in my book club meeting that if this were a speech, it would be a fantastic one. Long, but fantastic. However, in book form, the digressions and repetitions and non sequiturs are obvious and tiring. And there are strange narrative gaps — at one point Koofi describes an arduous effort to get her husband out of jail which ends with three neighbors putting up their properties as guarantee that said husband will not leave Kabul and will go to certain meetings whenever called, and then one page later she is packing up her family and leaving the entire country. I really hope something else happened in between these events, but the book does not let me know! I am imagining a poor, tired editor fixing up this book and just giving up in the middle, figuring that if anyone gets that far they’ll just keep going anyway. Not that I ever did that as a newspaper editor, no sir.

Barring more caffeine for the editor, I like the suggestion of another book clubber that this book would have been better as written about Koofi rather than as told by her. She has an interesting story and I hope that someday she becomes president of Afghanistan so I can read a better version of it.

Recommendation: A good read for ladies and those interested in life in Afghanistan, if you’re willing to overlook the terrible writing. (I am not.)

Rating: 5/10