Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’Toole

Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’TooleWe Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole
Published by Liveright ISBN: 1631496530
on March 15, 2022
Genres: History, Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 624
Format: E-Book, eBook
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five-stars

A quarter-century after Frank McCourt’s extraordinary bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, Fintan O’Toole, one of the Anglophone world’s most consummate stylists, continues the narrative of modern Ireland into our own time. O’Toole was born in the year the revolution began. It was 1958, and the Irish government—in despair, because all the young people were leaving—opened the country to foreign investment. So began a decades-long, ongoing experiment with Irish national identity. Weaving his own experiences into this account of Irish social, cultural, and economic change, O’Toole shows how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a Catholic “backwater” to an almost totally open society. A sympathetic-yet-exacting observer, O’Toole shrewdly weighs more than sixty years of globalization, delving into the violence of the Troubles and depicting, in biting detail, the astonishing collapse of the once-supreme Irish Catholic Church. The result is a stunning work of memoir and national history that reveals how the two modes are inextricable for all of us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a great deal. As O’Toole argues in the Acknowledgments (and also in speaking engagements), his “life is too boring for a memoir and there is no shortage of modern Irish history” (587). So he combined the two and described the changes Ireland has undergone while sharing his personal stories and anecdotes as well as connections to and recollections of those events. The result is a thoroughly engaging read.

I appreciated O’Toole’s facility with a turn of phrase as much as his skill with organizing his ideas. I was glad I read the book on Kindle, as it’s a hefty tome at more than 600 pages, but I also felt freer to highlight and otherwise markup the text. O’Toole’s central argument is that Ireland has attempted to operate under a “doubleness… [a] permanent state of contradiction” (33) that O’Toole describes throughout the book as “a society that had developed an extraordinary capacity for cognitive disjunction, a genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time” (168). This capacity, O’Toole argues, prevented Ireland from progressing socially until the 1990s and from progressing economically until roughly the same time. The abuses of the Irish Catholic Church came to light in the 1990s, and O’Toole sees this as no coincidence. As I read, I kept thinking of how Sinéad O’Connor tried to cast light on these abuses and was ostracized and criticized for telling the truth. Ireland’s capacity to both know abuses were happening and pretend they were not resulted in mass emigration and trauma, but O’Toole believes Ireland may have “reached the point of accepting that half-knowledge—the ability to see clearly what is, while also acknowledging what is dark—is better than the swinging between the pretence of knowing everything and the denial of what you really do know” (569).

O’Toole thoroughly covers many major events in Irish history over the last 60 or so years, and I was especially interested in reading about the Troubles. One of my earliest memories of a news story that captured my attention was the hunger strikes in the early 1980s. I just couldn’t fathom how someone might stop eating to protest. I had a very simplistic understanding of the Troubles until recently. O’Toole argues that at least in part, admiration for martyrdom prolonged the Troubles. O’Toole explains that the hunger strikes were a part of this mindset: “We sacrifice ourselves. By doing so we show that life itself—including your life—is not the ultimate value” (325).  Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t get a pass. O’Toole criticizes the UK’s lack of understanding and treatment of the prisoners during the hunger strike. O’Toole says if the British government had allowed the IRA prisoners to wear their own clothes “a year earlier, dozens of people, inside and outside the prison, would not have died” (335).

I first heard about this book from a book review by Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic. The review intrigued me, so I purchased the book for my Kindle. I had a feeling I’d want to own this one and mark it up well. I have been on spring break for the last two weeks, and I wanted to go into Boston and get a library card from the Boston Public Library, so I visited their website to find out the requirements. The website advertised that Fintan O’Toole would be giving a talk about his new book at the library on Friday, March 18. It seemed like kismet. My son and I rode the train into Boston and enjoyed a great day wandering around the city, culminating our visit with a library visit to hear O’Toole speak. I was fascinated to hear him discuss his frustration with Brexit. He said that no consideration had been given to Northern Ireland in Brexit at all, but as he explained it, citizens of Northern Ireland are free to define themselves as Irish, English, or both. I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know that they can rejoin the Republic of Ireland any time a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland decide they want to. I think it will be very interesting to watch how Ireland’s future unfolds, especially now that Brexit means the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is an EU border as well.

five-stars

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous Authors

This week, I finished two books, both by indigenous authors. Postcolonial Love Poem is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz believes her mother was Native American but assimilated when she married Dunbar-Ortiz’s father. I highly recommend both books, which take on America’s history as a colonizing country—something the U.S. frequently pretends not to be.

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous AuthorsPostcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Díaz
Published by Graywolf Press ISBN: 1644450143
on March 3, 2020
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 107
Format: Paperback
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Goodreads
five-stars

Natalie Diaz’s highly anticipated follow-up to When My Brother Was an Aztec, winner of an American Book Award. Postcolonial Love Poem is an anthem of desire against erasure. Natalie Diaz’s brilliant second collection demands that every body carried in its pages—bodies of language, land, rivers, suffering brothers, enemies, and lovers—be touched and held as beloveds. Through these poems, the wounds inflicted by America onto an indigenous people are allowed to bloom pleasure and tenderness: “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden.” In this new lyrical landscape, the bodies of indigenous, Latinx, black, and brown women are simultaneously the body politic and the body ecstatic. In claiming this autonomy of desire, language is pushed to its dark edges, the astonishing dunefields and forests where pleasure and love are both grief and joy, violence and sensuality.

Diaz defies three conditions from which she writes, a nation whose creation predicated the diminishment and ultimate erasure of bodies like hers and the people she loves: “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. // I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.” Postcolonial Love Poem unravels notions of American goodness and creates something more powerful than hope—a future is built, future being a matrix of the choices we make now, and in these poems, Diaz chooses love.

My favorite poems in this collection were “American Arithmetic,” “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” “The First Water is the Body,” and “exhibits from The American Water Museum.” I liked them all for different reasons. I was familiar with “American Arithmetic” already. I think someone on Twitter pointed me in that poem’s direction a few years ago. It’s a clever use of statistics to make a point. “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You” plays with lyrics from “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I wanted to teach that poem this year, but we had a snow day, and I had to move some things around. I liked the two water poems for the messages about water and life. This collection was an excellent read on the train to and from Boston yesterday.

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous AuthorsAn Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (ReVisioning American History, #3) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Published by Beacon Press ISBN: 080700040X
on September 16, 2014
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 296
Format: E-Book, eBook
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Goodreads
five-stars

The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.
Today in the United States, there are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the fifteen million Native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the US settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the US empire. Spanning more than four hundred years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history radically reframes US history and explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative.

I read this book in fits in starts. I first started to read it some time back, I forget how long ago, but I had to set it aside for reasons I no longer remember (probably grad school). I picked it up again recently as I was teaching a unit in my Social Justice class on Native history and literature. As advertised, this book examines the history of America through the eyes of indigenous people. I was looking for a bit more about more recent history, including activism on the part of the American Indian Movement and more recent strides such as the Indian Child Welfare Act (which is under threat) and cultural revival efforts. Still, this book was an interesting introduction to the many ways the United States’ genocide and war against indigenous people have impacted today’s events. For instance, I happened to note a politician on TV using the term “Indian Country” to refer to a country/territory hostile to Americans, and it was right after I had read in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book that the military still uses this term. The legacy of the horrible racism and greed perpetrated against indigenous people is still very much a part of our country today.

Mid-March Reviews

I’m in spring break for school and catching up on some recent book reviews.

Mid-March ReviewsKeep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by Maggie Smith
Published by Atria Books ISBN: 1982132078
on October 6, 2020
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

Perfect for fans of Anne Lamott and Cheryl Strayed, this is an inspiring and uplifting collection of essays and quotes on creativity and resilience by the award-winning author of the viral poem Good Bones.

When award-winning poet Maggie Smith started writing daily Twitter posts under the title “Keep Moving” in the wake of her divorce, they unexpectedly caught fire. People around the world connected to her short, inspiring quotes which brilliantly captured the complexities of the human heart. Funny, wry, and profound, Maggie’s writing has been and continues to be a form of healing for herself and countless fans.

Now, you can experience her outstanding and healing prose with this powerful and evocative collection. Featuring some of her most popular posts and essays, Keep Moving also includes new and never before published writing. Gorgeously and lovingly wrought, this is the perfect gift for anyone looking for a daily dose of optimism and spiritual nourishment.

This book is mostly encouraging aphorisms and short meditations. I found some of it helpful, hence four stars, but I prefer Maggie Smith’s poetry.

Mid-March ReviewsDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Narrator: Richard Armitage
Published by Audible Studios on February 9, 2016
Genres: Classic
Length: 36 hours 30 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

David Copperfield is the story of a young man's adventures on his journey from an unhappy and impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr Murdstone; his brilliant, but ultimately unworthy school-friend James Steerforth; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble, yet treacherous Uriah Heep; frivolous, enchanting Dora Spenlow; and the magnificently impecunious Wilkins Micawber, one of literature's great comic creations. In David Copperfield—the novel he described as his 'favourite child'—Dickens drew revealingly on his own experiences to create one of the most exuberant and enduringly popular works, filled with tragedy and comedy in equal measure.

My husband and I listened to this one. First, it’s completely easy to understand why this novel has always been popular and remains a classic. It’s a delight from start to finish. Betsey Trotwood has to be one of the most brilliant characters ever conceived, and David’s old nemesis Uriah Heep is horribly realistic (surely Charles Dickens knew a guy like this, right?). Richard Armitage’s narration is amazing. His acting talent is on full display in the various voices; his Uriah Heep is entirely unctuous. Every time he says “Uriah writhed,” you can feel it. Gross. To be fair, Dickens’s writing suffers a bit from the addition of an annoying-young-damsel-who-is-supposed-to-be-attractive-for-some-reason-no-one-can-figure-out. I noticed it in A Tale of Two Cities and to an extent in Great Expectations, but Dora takes the cake. I thought she was stupid and annoying and completely incompatible with David. What a cast of memorable characters. What a great book. I’m glad I finally read it.

Mid-March ReviewsSongs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
Narrator: Kristen Sieh
Published by Random House Audio on June 22, 2021
Length: 10 hours 45 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

A scintillating debut from a major new voice in fiction, Songs in Ursa Major is a love story set in 1969, alive with music, sex, and the trappings of fame.

Raised on an island off Massachusetts by a mother who wrote songs for famous musicians, Jane Quinn is singing in her own band before she's old enough to even read music. When folk legend Jesse Reid hears about Jane's performance at the island's music festival, a star is born—and so is a passionate love affair: they become inseparable when her band joins his on tour. Wary of being cast as his girlfriend—and haunted by her mother's shattered ambitions—Jane shields her relationship from the public eye, but Jesse's star power pulls her into his orbit of fame. Caught up in the thrill of the road and the profound and lustful connection she has with Jesse, Jane is blind-sided by the discovery she makes about the dark secret beneath his music. Heartbroken and blackballed by the industry, Jane is now truly on her own: to make the music she loves, and to make peace with her family. Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?

I wanted to like this book more. It suffers from the fact that Daisy Jones & The Six and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev exist and it’s not as strong in comparison. This novel is sort of a thinly-veiled story of James Taylor and maybe Joni Mitchell set mostly on a fictionalized version of Martha’s Vineyard. I think there are some anachronisms to start with. For example, “What Would Jane Do” based on “What Would Jesus Do?” might be a bit out of time. While the WWJD saying goes back to the 1800s, its resurgence only dates to the 1990s. It felt out of place for Jane Quinn’s fans to pick it up. At one point, Jane’s record label guy (I forget what exactly his role was, but he discovered Jane) had an answering machine. I guess they existed prior to the 1980s, but they were not widely used. The fact that things DID exist doesn’t mean they were WIDELY USED, hence the feelings of anachronism. These were the two most glaring issues, but they were not the only ones. The other issue was a spoilery plot point. I won’t divulge it, but it felt like a cheat when it was revealed because the author used third-person limited and focused on Jane. It’s one thing for Jane to keep something from Jesse, but it’s another for her to keep it even from the reader. I understand why the author felt the need to save the secret, but I didn’t like the way it was handled, and it was at that point that the book lost me. If you’re going to have a protagonist lie to the reader, you need to pull it off with a bit more finesse. I finished it because I’d become invested, and I did enjoy part of the journey, which is why it ultimately landed on 3.5 stars.

February Reviews

I fell a little behind in reviewing books. It seems like January and February are always the busiest months at my school. I finished three books in February and early March, some of which I counted for reading challenges.

February ReviewsCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Published by Random House ISBN: 0593230256
on August 4, 2020
Pages: 496
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

While Wilkerson’s analogy between caste and race has been criticized, I found this book very interesting and illuminating. I agree with some of Charisse Burden-Stelly’s arguments in the article I linked. I don’t know enough to argue either for or against thinking of the U.S. as a race-based caste system, but it was interesting to see the ways in which the Indian caste system, the Nazi regime, and America’s racism were similar in construction. I will also add that it’s important to be cautious about comparing any system to Nazi Germany. The Nazis killed 11 million people. I would never argue that American racism or India’s caste system haven’t been deadly. Of course they have. As Sunil Khilnani argues in an article for The New Yorker, “Applying a single abstraction to multiple realities inevitably creates friction—sometimes productive, sometimes not. In the book’s comparison of the Third Reich to India and America, for example, a rather jarring distinction is set aside: the final objective of Nazi ideology was to eliminate Jewish people, not just to subordinate them.” In spite of these valid critiques, I found the book interesting, and I recommend it to people who want to understand racism.

February ReviewsJohn Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
Published by Yale University Press ISBN: 0300124651
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Pages: 446
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats's entire life, from his early years at Keats's Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats's poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.

Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats's childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats's father, his mother's too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats's doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

I checked this book out of my local library, and as I was writing this post, I discovered I must have purchased it about nine years ago. At any rate, Amazon says I did. I have no memory of buying it, and I could not tell you where it might be. However, I’m glad to learn that I have a copy of this book somewhere because I really enjoyed it. Nicholas Roe is extremely thorough. I have to admit I was really waiting to get to the part when Keats met Fanny Brawne. I have a girl crush on Fanny Brawne. However, I enjoyed meeting the Keats who emerges from the pages of Roe’s biography. The biggest scandal stirred up by this particular book was Roe’s speculation that Keats was an opium addict, or at least that he dosed himself with laudanum. I didn’t find that particularly shocking. If it’s true, Keats joined a great number of other people living in his era (and for that matter, our own, as we’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic). One aspect of Keats’s story that really struck me was that he knew immediately that he was dying when he contracted tuberculosis because of his medical training. He identified the blood sputum as “arterial blood.” How horrible it must have been to be a young man, just discovering his genius as a writer, only to understand he would not live. No wonder he wrote this remarkable poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I’d love to read more literary biographies like this one. My one quibble with the book is that it had two image collections, including pictures of many people and places important to Keats, but no pictures of Keats. I mentioned this complaint on Twitter, and a writer acquaintance of mine said it might be true that Roe couldn’t afford pictures of Keats. When I asked if his press couldn’t have helped with that, she said maybe not. I find that to be puzzling, if true, especially as Roe describes some of the more famous images of Keats. I would think he’d want to have copies of those images, at least, in the book.

February ReviewsIreland by Frank Delaney
Narrator: Frank Delaney
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0060838833
on February 1, 2005
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 19 hours and 29 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

From a land famous for storytelling comes an epic novel of Ireland that captures the intimate, passionate texture of the Irish spirit.

One evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller arrives unannounced at a house in the Irish countryside. In exchange for a bed and a warm meal, he invites his hosts and their neighbors to join him by the wintry fireside, and begins to tell formative stories of Ireland’s history. Ronan, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the storytelling that, when the old man leaves abruptly under mysterious circumstances, the boy devotes himself to finding him again.

Ronan’s search for the Storyteller becomes both a journey of self-discovery, long unspoken family secrets, and an immersion into the sometimes conflicting histories of his native land. A sweeping novel of huge ambition, Ireland is the beautifully told story of a remarkable nation. It rings with the truth of a writer passionate about his country and in full command of his craft.

This book was utterly charming! I put out a call on Twitter for books set in Ireland, and everyone was recommending Tana French. I am not opposed to mystery or thrillers. I read them sometimes. But I was looking for this book, which no one was recommending—I found it on my own. I wanted to read something that captured the place and its people. Delaney was a fantastic narrator, and the book was shot through with humor. When I initially saw how long the audiobook was, I was nervous about finishing it before it was due to the library. I was only able to borrow it for 14 days, and it’s over 19 hours long! But I needn’t have worried. I was looking for excuses to listen to it. Part travelogue, part history, part myth, and all story, Ireland is highly recommended for anyone who wants to travel to Ireland through a book. It’s one of the most delightful books I have read in a long time. I won’t give away the ending, but I appreciated the direction Delaney took it.

I’m going to make an effort to finish writing reviews a bit more quickly, but we’re all caught up for now.

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob Spitz

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob SpitzLed Zeppelin: The Biography by Bob Spitz
Narrator: Rob Shapiro
Published by Penguin Audio on November 9, 2021
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Length: 21 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

From the author of the definitive New York Times bestselling history of the Beatles comes the authoritative account of the group Jack Black and many others call the greatest rock band of all time, arguably the most successful, and certainly one of the most notorious. Rock stars. Whatever those words mean to you, chances are, they owe a debt to Led Zeppelin. No one before or since has lived the dream quite like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. In Led Zeppelin, Bob Spitz takes their full measure, for good and sometimes for ill, separating the myth from the reality with the connoisseurship and storytelling flair that are his trademarks.

From the opening notes of their first album, the band announced itself as something different, a collision of grand artistic ambition and brute primal force, of delicate English folk music and hard-driving African-American blues. That record sold over 10 million copies, and it was the merest beginning; Led Zeppelin's albums have sold over 300 million certified copies worldwide, and the dust has never settled. Taken together, Led Zeppelin's discography has spent an almost incomprehensible ten-plus years on the album charts. The band is notoriously guarded, and previous books shine more heat than light. But Bob Spitz's authority is undeniable and irresistible. His feel for the atmosphere, the context—the music, the business, the recording studios, the touring life, the radio stations, the fans, the whole ecosystem of popular music—is unparalleled. His account of the melding of Page and Jones, the virtuosic London sophisticates, with Plant and Bonham, the wild men from the Midlands, into a band out of the ashes of the Yardbirds, in a scene dominated by the Beatles and the Stones but changing fast, is in itself a revelation.

Spitz takes the music seriously, and brings the band's artistic journey to full and vivid life. The music is only part of the legend, however: Led Zeppelin is also the story of how the 60's became the 70's, of how playing in clubs became playing in stadiums and flying your own jet, of how innocence became decadence. Led Zeppelin may not have invented the groupie, and they weren't the first rock band to let loose on the road, but they took it to an entirely new level, as with everything else. Not all the legends are true, but in Bob Spitz's careful accounting, what is true is astonishing, and sometimes disturbing. Led Zeppelin gave no quarter, and neither has Bob Spitz. Led Zeppelin is the full and honest reckoning the band has long awaited, and richly deserves.

Oof. Okay, this book. I will start with the caveat that when I was in high school, Led Zeppelin was my favorite band. This was post-breakup, several years beyond John Bonham’s death, when Robert Plant had a flourishing solo career. I was 15, I think, when I first heard them on the radio, and I started buying up cassette tapes of their back catalog. I listened to them so much that when I put on one of their albums today, I still know them note-for-note. Over the years, I admit my interest waned, and I did not seek out many of the posthumous releases that have come out over the last 20 years or so. I don’t even own all of their albums in iTunes (something my 17-year-old self probably would have thought unthinkable). I haven’t read some of the books and memoirs, but I had read enough of them to know they’re generally hagiographic and fawning in nature. I had heard good things about this biography, so I decided to listen to the audio version.

This is a great biography. Spitz wasn’t able to interview the band, who (probably wisely) opted not to talk with him in the wake of #MeToo. However, he did interview many people I’d never heard from before. As a result, I learned many things about the band that I didn’t previously know, especially about Jimmy Page’s childhood, adolescence, and early music career. Even as a big fan of their music, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which the group was really Jimmy’s band with some hired musicians (essentially), or that they really weren’t friends with each other, or that their drug problems were that bad. On a surface level, I knew some of these things, but Spitz helped me understand these things and how they impacted the band. I had a pretty thorough knowledge of some of the groupie stories, but they were disturbing in the extreme in Spitz’s telling. I think other books tend to gloss over the stories or cast them in a different light, but Spitz shines a great big spotlight on them. These men did not believe women were fully-fledged human beings worthy of any sort of respect. That’s it. Led Zeppelin definitely suffers under the microscope. In particular, their manager Peter Grant, tour manager Richard Cole, and drummer John Bonham were thugs and should probably have done prison time—all three of them—for the violence they committed. Multiple assaults, rape, arguably attempted murder. The only shocking aspect of John Bonham’s death is that it didn’t happen sooner. In fact, it’s pretty shocking Jimmy Page didn’t die, too. I didn’t realize how close the band was to breaking up anyway when John Bonham died, either.

Spitz’s background in music is also handy when he’s describing their performances and recorded output. He takes a fresh look at their music, as he was not a fan prior to writing the book, and as such, he avoids some of the fanboy flattery that so many other books and articles engage in when discussing Led Zeppelin. In his hands, the music feels fresh and new. I consider it remarkable restraint that he didn’t excoriate “Hot Dog,” arguably the worst song they recorded. He mentioned the song just once. The last two albums were definitely a letdown after Physical Graffiti, which is probably my favorite of their albums. I caution Led Zeppelin fans about reading this one. Spitz is unflinching, and he may take them down a few notches in your estimation (he certainly did in mine). It’s hard to look away from the worst of their excesses with your respect for the band intact. Still, I thought it was a fascinating examination of the group’s stories and music.

five-stars

Review: Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies, S. D. Nelson

Review: Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies, S. D. NelsonCrazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies by S.D. Nelson
Published by Harry N. Abrams ISBN: 1419731939
on November 9, 2021
Genres: Biography, Childrens, History, Nonfiction, Young Adult
Pages: 144
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

With photographs and stunning illustrations from acclaimed author-artist S.D. Nelson, this thrilling double biography juxtaposes the lives of two enemies whose conflict changed American history: Crazy Horse and George Custer.

In 1876, Lakota chief Crazy Horse helped lead his people’s resistance against the white man’s invasion of the northern Great Plains. One of the leaders of the US military forces was Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. The men had long been enemies. At the height of the war, when tribalism had reached its peak, they crossed paths for the last time.

In this action-packed double biography, S. D. Nelson draws fascinating parallels between Crazy Horse and Custer, whose lives were intertwined. These warriors were alike in many ways, yet they often collided in deadly rivalry. Witness reports and reflections by their peers and enemies accompany side-by-side storytelling that offers very different perspectives on the same historical events. The two men’s opposing destinies culminated in the infamous Battle of the Greasy Grass, as the Lakota called it, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as it was called by the Euro-Americans.

In Crazy Horse and Custer, Nelson’s gripping narrative and signature illustration style based on Plains Indians ledger art, along with a mix of period photographs and paintings, shines light on two men whose conflict forever changed Lakota and US history. The book includes an author’s note, timeline, endnotes, and bibliography.

This book approaches the biographies of Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer by drawing parallels between their lives. It is striking that the two men who would face each other at the Battle of Little Bighorn were born a year apart and died a year apart. I appreciated that Nelson did not engage in the hagiography of either man but instead demonstrated their humanity, flaws and all. Truthfully, though, it’s hard for Custer to come across well to a modern reader, revered as he might have been at the time of his death. The author even points out that in our current time, Crazy Horse is largely admired while Custer is reviled.

I first became interested in this history when I saw the film Little Big Man as a middle schooler. It’s a great film and one of the first (if not the very first) revisionist Western. Though the main character is a White man who is kidnapped by Cheyenne as a child and assimilated into the tribe, some (though admittedly not all) of the Cheyenne characters are played by Native actors, and indigenous people are shown in a more sympathetic light than Hollywood had traditionally depicted them. After seeing this film, I started to read about what happened with Custer, who is a character in the movie.

This book seems to be pitched to late middle-grade readers. I admit I learned a lot I didn’t know about both men. I had no idea Custer and his father were pro-slavery, for example. I knew next to nothing of Crazy Horse’s biography. The book is organized into short chapters that alternate between the biographies of both men. The author explains that he feels uniquely qualified to tell this story as the descendant of a Lakota woman who married a White man who had served under Custer in the Army until being honorably discharged before the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Though the intended audience for this book is probably middle schoolers, anyone with a passing interest in the history of the so-called Indian Wars might enjoy reading this book. I appreciated the author’s artwork as part of the storytelling as well. Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer both come alive in the pages of this book.

four-stars

Review: Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger

Review: Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. DenlingerShelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family by Stephen Hebron, Elizabeth C. Denlinger
Published by Bodleian Library ISBN: 1851243399
on January 15, 2011
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Poetry
Pages: 192
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

It is difficult to think of a family more endowed with literary genius than the Shelley family—from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, novelist Mary Shelley, to Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft—all were authors in their own right. Using extensive archival material Shelley’s Ghost explores the making of this remarkable literary family’s reputation.

Drawing on the Bodleian Library’s outstanding collection of letters, poetry manuscripts, rare printed books, portraits, and other personalia—including Shelley’s working notebooks, Keats’s letters to Shelley, William Godwin’s diary, and the original manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—Stephen Hebron charts the history of this talented yet troubled family. After Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drowning in 1822, Mary published various manuscripts relating to both her husband’s and her father’s lives, and passed this historical legacy to her son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley and his wife, Lady Jane Shelley. As guardians of the archive until they bequeathed it to the Bodleian in 1892, Sir Percy Florence and Lady Jane helped shape the posthumous reputations of these writers. An afterword by Elizabeth Denlinger of the New York Public Library offers an additional perspective, exploring material relating to the Shelley family that slipped beyond the family’s control.

An unparalleled look at one of the most significant families of British Romantic literature, Shelley’s Ghost will be welcomed by scholars and the many fans of this enduring literacy legacy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the poet who made me fall in love with poetry. I can’t claim I always understand what he says, but he captures something that really spoke to me as a high-school student with dreams of being a writer, too. Later, I took a course in college called Late Romantic Literature. My university was on the quarter system at that time, and each quarter was 10 weeks long. I recall we spent two weeks each on Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Mary Shelley. I don’t remember what the other two weeks’ focus was. The course only deepened my appreciation for the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. About ten years ago, I was given this book after entering a contest. The goal was to record yourself reciting a Shelley poem, and the best entry would win a signed edition of this book. I didn’t submit the best entry, but I submitted one of only three entries, so the Bodleian decided to give all of us a copy. It was rather nice of them to do, and I started to read the book, but one thing happened and then another, and I’m sad to say I let the book sit on my bookshelf. I finally read it over my winter break.

The images in the book are gorgeous. I wish I were better able to read the letters and manuscripts photographed for the book, or perhaps that full transcriptions had been provided in an appendix. Unfortunately, the Bodleian has taken down the exhibition website as the technologies used to build and maintain it are obsolete. You can see some of the exhibition in this video:

I am not sure to what extent this exhibition was permanent or that visitors to the Bodleian could see it today, but the exhibition book captures beautiful photographs of everything from artwork to manuscripts. The text of the exhibition book presents the history of the family from William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft through Percy Florence Shelley and his wife Jane, Lady Shelley. Percy Florence Shelley was the only child of Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to survive to adulthood. I found myself particularly interested in Lady Shelley as she turned out to be something of an eccentric, and her devotion to the memory of her late father- and mother-in-law may be one reason why we have so many of the family’s manuscripts and belongings. She seems to have adored her mother-in-law, Mary Shelley.

I really love seeing the handwriting of writers, and this book includes several images from journals, notebooks, and letters written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. I was particularly intrigued by the chapter on Shelley’s notebooks. Shelley drowned, along with his friend Edward Williams, when his boat the Don Juan capsized off the coast of Italy. How poignant and sad that Shelley had a tendency to draw boats in his journals. I was also struck by the work Mary Shelley did to secure her husband’s literary legacy while fighting her father-in-law’s wishes to bury all of his son’s work, especially as Mary needed her father-in-law’s support to ensure her son, Percy Florence Shelley, had a proper education and inherited the Shelley baronetcy. (I’m not sure she cared as much about the title as she did that her son was educated and had the support he needed.)

I was moved by William Godwin’s letter to his daughter in February 1823 (some months after Shelley’s death):

Do not, I intreat you, be cast down about your worldly circumstances. You certainly contain within yourself the means of your subsistence. Your talents are truly extraordinary. Frankenstein is universally known; &, though it can never be a book for vulgar reading, it is every where respected. It is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of.

I wonder if she felt at all encouraged that her father, widely considered a great philosopher and writer in his time, felt this way about her work, and not because she was his daughter, but because she was good.

I think anyone with an interest in Romantic poets or Shelley, in particular, will enjoy the beautiful images in this book. The text may or may not illuminate the family history, depending on the reader’s familiarity with the broad strokes of their lives. It’s a beautiful book and one I’m happy to own (even if it took me a decade to finally read).

five-stars

Review: Never a Dull Moment: 1971—The Year that Rock Exploded

Review: Never a Dull Moment: 1971—The Year that Rock ExplodedNever a Dull Moment: 1971—The Year That Rock Exploded by David Hepworth
Published by Recorded Books on June 9, 2016
Genres: History, Nonfiction
Length: 11 hours 39 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-half-stars

A rollicking look at 1971—the busiest, most innovative, and resonant year of the 70s, defined by the musical arrival of such stars as David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Joni Mitchell

On New Year's Eve, 1970, Paul McCartney told his lawyers to issue the writ at the High Court in London, effectively ending The Beatles. You might say this was the last day of the pop era. The following day, which was a Friday, was 1971. You might say this was the first day of the rock era. And within the remaining 364 days of this monumental year, the world would hear Don McLean's "American Pie," The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," The Who's "Baba O'Riley," Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and more.

David Hepworth, an ardent music fan and well-regarded critic, was twenty-one in '71, the same age as many of the legendary artists who arrived on the scene. Taking us on a tour of the major moments, the events, and songs of this remarkable year, he shows how musicians came together to form the perfect storm of rock and roll greatness, starting a musical era that would last longer than anyone predicted. Those who joined bands to escape things that lasted found themselves in a new age, its colossal start being part of the genre's staying power.

Never a Dull Moment is more than a love song to the music of 1971. It's also an homage to the things that inspired art and artists alike. From Soul Train to The Godfather, hot pants to table tennis, Hepworth explores both the music and its landscapes, culminating in an epic story of rock and roll's best year.

I wanted to read this book for a long time for many reasons, chief of which is that 1971 is the year I was born but also because I knew it was such a great year for music. Hepworth’s thesis is that 1971 was the greatest year for rock music, and given the evidence he provides, he makes a fairly strong case. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his arguments, but I think he makes a great case, and he clearly has done his research. I was impressed by the breadth of music Hepworth covered, too; I think many rock writers tend to be kind of niche. The book was entertaining, and each chapter ends with a playlist (my version is embedded below). On the other hand, reviews I’ve read critique the author because he picked the year he turned 20, and most of us wax nostalgic for the music we heard when we came of age, no matter how good or bad it was. I think there is also something to this argument. Hepworth reasons that 1971 was the year rock turned 17, so it arguably was also coming of age that year.

One of the more fun arguments Hepworth makes is that if you put together the biggest solo songs by each of the four Beatles, you’d have one of the best Beatles albums ever made: George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t it a Pity?,” John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and “Imagine,” Paul McCartney’s “Another Day,” “The Back Seat of My Car,” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” and Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” Another Spotify user put together an imagined album, and I have to admit it’s compelling:

I listened to the audiobook, and this is one I’d recommend reading in print. You might spend less time looking up things later on. I found it challenging to look up all the songs for the playlist. There was one song I couldn’t find on Spotify, so it doesn’t appear in the playlist below, but I honestly can’t remember what the song was anymore (I’d never heard of it before, and it went right out of my head). If I have another quibble, I’d argue Hepworth devotes a lot of space in the playlist to songs that really haven’t stood the test of time and are not in the same league as the more well-known songs on the list. Of course, that’s just my opinion, and I’m also speaking from the vantage point of someone who doesn’t remember the songs when they came out. Ask me about the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I might have a playlist with as many idiosyncracies as Hepworth’s. He had “Anticipation” by Carly Simon on the list twice, too (eh, I just left it like that). I was a bit surprised by Hepworth’s selection for the best song on the best album of the year. I don’t exactly think he’s out of the left-field with the choice. It makes a ton of sense. I might have argued for another song released, ironically enough, the same month—November. I don’t know if it’s spoiler-y of me to share the song title, but if you want to know it, let me know. Both the song he argued for the one I argued for are in the playlist below. One final point: near the end of the book, Hepworth argues that rock’s future was embodied in Elvis Presley’s career turn that year: becoming a nostalgia act and playing his hits for Vegas crowds rather than making new music. He argues that most rock acts end up that way—playing their earlier songs as their creative output diminishes. It’s a bit hard to argue with as there are few rock bands I can think of who are making music as compelling as the music they made when they were young. I have to say that part of the book made me feel a bit sad. In all, I would recommend this book for anyone who likes classic rock and wants to zoom in on a particularly significant year.

four-half-stars

Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric Pallant

Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric PallantSourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers by Eric Pallant
Published by Agate Surrey ISBN: 1572843012
on September 14, 2021
Genres: Cooking, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 280
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

Sourdough bread fueled the labor that built the Egyptian pyramids. The Roman Empire distributed free sourdough loaves to its citizens to maintain political stability. More recently, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, sourdough bread baking became a global phenomenon as people contended with being confined to their homes and sought distractions from their fear, uncertainty, and grief. In Sourdough Culture, environmental science professor Eric Pallant shows how throughout history, sourdough bread baking has always been about survival.

Sourdough Culture presents the history and rudimentary science of sourdough bread baking from its discovery more than six thousand years ago to its still-recent displacement by the innovation of dough-mixing machines and fast-acting yeast. Pallant traces the tradition of sourdough across continents, from its origins in the Middle East's Fertile Crescent to Europe and then around the world. Pallant also explains how sourdough fed some of history's most significant figures, such as Plato, Pliny the Elder, Louis Pasteur, Marie Antoinette, Martin Luther, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and introduces the lesser-known—but equally important—individuals who relied on sourdough bread for sustenance: ancient Roman bakers, medieval housewives, Gold Rush miners, and the many, many others who have produced daily sourdough bread in anonymity.

Each chapter of Sourdough Culture is accompanied by a selection from Pallant's own favorite recipes, which span millennia and traverse continents, and highlight an array of approaches, traditions, and methods to sourdough bread baking. Sourdough Culture is a rich, informative, engaging read, especially for bakers—whether skilled or just beginners. More importantly, it tells the important and dynamic story of the bread that has fed the world.

I bought this book for myself as a birthday present. I learned some interesting things about how sourdough culture works as well as its use in historical bread baking. Pallant begins his history of sourdough with the conceit of tracing the origin of his own sourdough starter. He was told that its provenance was in the mining town of Cripple Creek, CO. in 1893; however, proving it turns out to be an impossible task. Pallant makes a case that sourdough’s survival is miraculous in the age of commercial yeast. He also addresses the boom in home-baked sourdough in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (I personally know several people who never baked sourdough before the pandemic, and now they’re more expert than I am! Disclosure: I am not an expert.)

The historical aspects of the book are certainly interesting, though, at times, Pallant veers off-topic a bit. I found the scientific discussion of yeasts and bacteria really fascinating. Honestly, one of the first things I wanted to do was have my sourdough starter tested to see what sorts of yeasts and bacteria it contains. Can one do this? I feel like I found a website for a place where you could send your starter for testing, but now that I’m trying to find it again, I wonder if I dreamed it—sort of a 23 and Me for sourdough starter. I wouldn’t expect to find anything particularly odd about my starter, but it would be interesting to see what the dominant strains of yeast and bacteria are.

I found the chapter about the mass production of bread to be interesting, mainly because it helps explain why home-baked bread, even bread made with commercial yeast, tastes so much better than mass-produced bread. Honestly, his description of the Chorleywood Bread Process that is used to make commercial bread is kind of gross. It definitely did not make me want to go back to commercial bread, though, to be fair, I’m not sure if that process is used in the USA.

Pallant understands that making bread connects us to humanity’s history. I always feel connected to the past when I make a loaf of bread, and I feel even more connected when I make a loaf of sourdough. Sourdough demands time and patience, both of which are hard to come by in the 21st century.

Pallant also includes quite a few recipes, but frankly, there isn’t much that’s new. One recipe, for example, is Chad Robertson’s sourdough recipe. If you are looking for recipes, you’d do better to buy a bread recipe book. In fact, buy Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Because Pallant spoke so highly of it, I bought Daniel Leader’s Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making (paid link), and I’m looking forward to reading that book and trying some of the recipes.

I would probably recommend this book only to true bread freaks. I’m not sure people who don’t bake would enjoy it. On the other hand, if you are interested in food history or microhistory (history focusing on a narrow subject), then you might still enjoy this book even if you don’t bake.

Sourdough Foccacia made with my starter. Recipe link.
four-stars

Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Richard Matthews
Published by Books on Tape on October 17, 2003
Genres: History, Nonfiction, Science
Length: 17 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-half-stars

Bill Bryson has been an enormously popular author both for his travel books and for his books on the English language. Now, this beloved comic genius turns his attention to science. Although he doesn't know anything about the subject (at first), he is eager to learn and takes information that he gets from the world's leading experts and explains it to us in a way that makes it exciting and relevant. Even the most pointy-headed, obscure scientist succumbs to the affable Bryson's good nature and reveals how he or she figures things out. Showing us how scientists get from observations to ideas and theories is Bryson's aim, and he succeeds brilliantly. It is an adventure of the mind, as exciting as any of Bryson's terrestrial journeys.

I have read quite a few Bill Bryson books this year. I enjoy his comic voice, which is evident in this book, though not as strong as in the other books I read. Partly, it’s the subject matter. Still, he manages to explain some complex topics in an accessible way and be entertaining at the same time. I was reminded in particular of my courses in anthropology, astronomy, and weather and climate from college as I listened. I was surprised I remembered so much.

The book might be a little out of date. I think it was originally published in 2003, and I have a whole grown-up son living in my house who was published the same year. As such, given the scientific nature of the book’s topics, I believe some of the information to be out of date. For example, Bryson asserts in the books that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did not breed and even argued that the results might be similar to a mule (!). Well, I’m not sure when scientists discovered that’s not true, but the current prevailing thought is that they did, and not only did they, but many people the world over carry Neanderthal DNA. That was one example that I caught. It’s tricky because what we understand and the science behind it changes all the time.

Still, this was an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is not Bryson, but he’s great.

four-half-stars