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: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Dave Grohl

Review: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Dave GrohlThe Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl
Published by HarperAudio on October 5, 2021
Genres: Memoir
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

So, I've written a book.

Having entertained the idea for years, and even offered a few questionable opportunities ("It's a piece of cake! Just do 4 hours of interviews, find someone else to write it, put your face on the cover, and voila!") I have decided to write these stories just as I have always done, in my own hand. The joy that I have felt from chronicling these tales is not unlike listening back to a song that I've recorded and can't wait to share with the world, or reading a primitive journal entry from a stained notebook, or even hearing my voice bounce between the Kiss posters on my wall as a child.

This certainly doesn't mean that I'm quitting my day job, but it does give me a place to shed a little light on what it's like to be a kid from Springfield, Virginia, walking through life while living out the crazy dreams I had as young musician. From hitting the road with Scream at 18 years old, to my time in Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, jamming with Iggy Pop or playing at the Academy Awards or dancing with AC/DC and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, drumming for Tom Petty or meeting Sir Paul McCartney at Royal Albert Hall, bedtime stories with Joan Jett or a chance meeting with Little Richard, to flying halfway around the world for one epic night with my daughters…the list goes on. I look forward to focusing the lens through which I see these memories a little sharper for you with much excitement.

I loved this book. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve read; I’d rank it right up with Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run. I was exactly the right age when Nirvana broke. I was a sophomore in college. I turned 20 the month Nevermind was released. All these years later, I still think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” captures the Gen-X zeitgeist. In the immortal words of Kurt Cobain, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”  I mean, that’s pretty much the Gen-X ethos.

My favorite stories from the book (in no particular order):

  • Dave Grohl rescheduled a show in Perth, Australia, necessitating a ridiculous trip from Australia to the US and back just so he could take his daughters to the Daddy/Daughter Dance and honor his tour obligations. On the flight back to Australia, he suffered from both food poisoning and turbulence.
  • Grohl played drums with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on Saturday Night Live. Tom Petty apparently gives looks that tell entire stories. Apparently, Grohl nearly became a permanent Heartbreaker.
  • Grohl’s Republican father disowned him when he dropped out of high school to pursue music (with his mother’s blessing). His father’s parting words were classic.
  • Grohl bought himself the Joan Jett Barbie on a shopping trip with his daughters. Later, Joan Jett stayed with the Grohls at their house and read bedtime stories to Violet Grohl, Dave’s daughter.
  • Grohl apparently lived in a haunted house and had an encounter with a medium who told him his dreams about UFOs were real.
  • After Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl retreated to a remote part of Ireland. His encounter with a hitchhiker with take your breath away, but I don’t want to give it away.

Grohl handled some aspects of his story with class: he has plenty of reason to blast Courtney Love, but he never even mentioned her in the book. Likewise, he maintained the privacy of his ex-wife and ex-girlfriends. He lays all of his success at the feet of his mother, and truthfully, she sounds like a lovely person. I definitely want to read her book now that I’ve read his.

Grohl’s memoir is aptly titled, for he is a born storyteller. I was highly entertained for the entire ride, and if you pick up this book, too, I highly recommend you listen to Grohl read the audiobook (you will not be disappointed).

Grohl put together an epic playlist with all the songs and/or artists he mentioned (thanks to my sister for sending it to me; she’s the biggest Dave Grohl fan I know).

five-stars

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill BrysonShakespeare by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0061555347
on October 23, 2007
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Length: 5 hours 28 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

If you’ve seen my most recent reviews, you might have noticed I’m on a bit of a Bill Bryson kick right now. I had been wanting to read this book for a while, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t moved it from my TBR pile to my reading pile. The other day, I had to put a hold on an audiobook I wanted from the library, and I figured I’d see if I could listen to this one instead, especially as it is short. Yesterday, the book I had put on hold became available to check out, so I thought I should try to finish this book up.

Did I learn anything new here? Well, not really, but that’s only because I’ve read a lot about Shakespeare. I’m no expert, but I have been teaching his plays for over 20 years, and I have taken coursework in addition to the reading I’ve done. I think the average casual reader would learn quite a bit.

Bryson is by no means a Shakespeare scholar, but what he writes in this slim book corresponds with what I have learned from others. The book’s brevity and humor might make it more accessible for some people interested in learning more about what we can know definitively about William Shakespeare. The truth is, we know quite a lot, particularly for a man of the sixteenth/seventeenth centuries. He’s one of the most dissected people to have lived, and unlikely new discoveries are sometimes made. Bryson recounts a few of these in the book. He carefully veers away from speculating when we don’t really know—which is refreshing because people fill in the gaps of our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life in some really strange ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for what it was meant to be: a brief biography based entirely on what we know about William Shakespeare.

five-stars

Review: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, narr. Kenneth Branagh

Review: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, narr. Kenneth BranaghMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Narrator: Kenneth Branagh
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0062847929
on October 24th 2017
Format: Audio
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Goodreads
five-stars

A new recording of the most widely read mystery of all time, performed by Kenneth Branagh.

Now a major motion picture from Twentieth Century Fox, releasing November 10, 2017 and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

"The murderer is with us - on the train now..."

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

My husband and I decided to listen to this on audio as we cook dinner—listening to books while we cook has become a habit. I hadn’t read this one yet. In fact, I haven’t read anything else by Agatha Christie except And Then There Were None. I had the advantage of not having the mystery spoiled for me, so I will not spoil it for you, either (just in case). However, I will say it was quite a satisfying murder mystery, and I was guessing up until the end.

This was my first Hercule Poirot book, and I haven’t really watched any movies or television featuring the character, either. He definitely owes something of a debt to Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and I liked him. Kenneth Branagh is an excellent narrator. He does accents really well, which is something I noted when listening to his reading of Heart of Darkness. He even does a really good American accent. His reading of Mrs. Hubbard was fantastic.

I know the reason he read this book is that it’s a movie tie-in for the film he directed and starred in last year. I might want to watch it. It has a stellar cast, though reviews on IMDb are not awesome.

If you haven’t read this book, treat yourself to this audio version. You won’t be disappointed. Kenneth Branagh is a great reader.

This book counts towards the British Books Challenge, as Agatha Christie is a British writer, though the book is set in modern-day Croatia (Yugoslavia at the time). Because of its setting, I’m also counting it for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. I’m counting it as my selection for a classic crime story for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

five-stars