Reviews

How the Brain Lost Its Mind by Allan H. Ropper and Brian Burrell (2020)

how-the-brain-lost-its-mindIf anyone asked me would I ever want to go back in time, my answer is always no. Reading Ropper’s and Burrell’s take on the history of syphilis made my “no” even more firm

It’s an uncomfortable fact to acknowledge how deeply 19th and 20th-century science and eugenics entwined. Blood tests were a prerequisite to getting a marriage license. These tests were often used as a means for the state to promote anti-miscegenation. But there were also genuine health risks associated with these tests, too.

After the invention of the Wassermann test in 1906, syphilis could be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Why this disease? It can lead to neurological disorders. Birth defects. And even death. And 10% of the urban population had it. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts in New Mexico, had an abortion out of fear of giving it to her child, and nearly gave up sex all together after she was infected for the third time by her third husband.

Cures were spotty and dangerous. Savaraan 606 could give you terrible migraines, seizures, and death. Arsenic and mercury treatments amounted to sixteen-month injections that worked or didn’t. By 1917 pyrotherapy was introduced which often meant trading one disease for another (mostly malaria which got the body temperature up to 105 degrees).

Yes, there are plenty of things that suck about 2020. But modern medicine is not one of them.

Diana of Orchard Slope by Libbie Hawker (2020)

Diana of Orchard SlopeLibbie Hawker pays homage to L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables with a retelling from Anne’s best friend Diana’s point of view.

The prose is reminiscent of Montgomery with just enough of Hawker’s syntax to make this fan fiction her own (There are scenes pulled from the classic as well as original material).

Much like Hawker I devoured the worlds L.M. Montgomery created as a young adult. But did Diana’s story really need to be told? I don’t think so.

Nothing new is really offered to change Diana’s portrayal in Anne of Green Gables. I think if the story had encompassed more on how the different expectations for Anne vs Diana beyond the confines of the first book, now THAT would have brought something new to the beloved classic.

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump (2020)

Too Much & Never EnoughThe greatest strength of this book is also its greatest weakness. Mary Trump is a health expert who has expertise in the inner workings of the mind. This education helps fuel her analysis of the dysfunctional Trump family to which she belongs. When Mary sticks to hypothesizing on the inner workings of family members, especially Donald Trump, her uncle, the findings are damning for the current president. When she strays toward bitterness and rage, this book gives credence to the charge Mary Trump didn’t entirely publish this book out of concern for her country, but as a vehicle to wage some payback of her own for the terrible slight done to her and other Trump family members.

Some times I felt Mary Trump was too close. Too bitter. Especially about getting written out of the will. What I really wanted out of this book was the inner workings of the Trump family with a third party slant where all sides were vetted. However, Mary Trump makes an excellent argument of what I wanted this book to be is impossible. A third party would never have access to the information Mary Trump had, only because the Trump organization would never allow it. And Donald Trump’s base and many of the Republican party have also become defacto Trump members by enabling Donald Trump to do what he’s always done: deflect, disavow, and put himself on top regardless of any consequences.

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner (2020)

Case of the Velvet ClawsI will admit. I never watched more than a channel flip of the television series starring Raymond Burr as Erle Stanley Gardner’s titular hero. I’ve been more interested in watching HBO’s take on the character, but I’ve been holding off until I got a chance to read the first book in the Perry Mason series.

If you like your mysteries hardboiled, The Case of the Velvet Claws will more than satisfy. Gardner nails everything this genre requires. A dead body. A femme fatal. Scheming relatives and staff. Everyone is lying, so who is telling the truth? Lots of red herrings until the killer confesses.

If you want to know what makes this particular lawyer tick, look elsewhere. The only thing the reader is allowed to know, oftentimes as a detriment to the story, Perry Mason never gives up on his clients even when they’re attempting to frame him for murder. I suppose Perry Mason is a testament to the era (original publication date 1933; I read the 2013 version). While banks and government failed, and people lost their shirts and their smiles, there was still one man left in the world that wouldn’t give up on them.

Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman (2020)

Rebecca's TaleRebecca by Daphne du Maurier is one of my favorite novels. The author used the characters as a way to work through her own struggles with obsession, lust, feminism, eroticism, sexuality, and misogyny. These issues are timeless. It’s why the novel first published in 1938 is still in print. The story enabled Hitchcock to nab his only Oscar. It’s also why Sally Beauman decided to create a sequel sixty-three years later.

Rebecca’s Tale covers two major timelines: 1951 & 1931. The four main characters are Julyan, a man haunted by what he didn’t do for Rebecca. Gray sees Rebecca as a way to unlock the mysteries of his past. There’s Rebeca herself told through her diary. And Ellie who uses Rebecca as a guide on how she should live her life.

The trouble I had with the novel is it’s sanctioned fan fiction. Beauman is a fine writer. I think she could have been better served writing something created from her own imagination than borrowing from someone else’s. Beaman like all the characters in du Maurier’s Rebecca and in her own tribute falls prey to the same obsession. They want to give Rebecca a voice and in doing so they betray the entire point of the very thing du Maier was trying to show. No one knows Rebecca. Not even Rebecca herself.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner (2020)

Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Judith Rossner writes a book cemented in her time as well as our own. There was so much sex in this novel. Marihuana smoking. Judgment. Ridicule. That I spent a great deal of my time sighing during my reading of this book. I had a paperback copy of the 1975 version. It kept calling this book a cautionary tale. A cautionary tale for what? A woman who’s free with her sexuality will be punished? A woman that doesn’t settle for society’s expectation of her wanting to be a wife and mother will end in tragedy? Just what am I as a reader supposed to learn from this book?

The book starts out with Theresa’s brutal murder. I rather enjoyed this technique. I already know what’s going to happen to her, but how it happens is what kept me reading. Theresa on the surface is what a ‘respectable’ woman is supposed to be. Has a steady boyfriend. Teaches young kids. But as the reader gets to know her character Theresa is more complex than the label society–the police want to give her.

Theresa has sex with strangers. Semi-strangers. Guys that are jerks. She treats her conquests as cavalier as they do her. I would accept this about the character, her careless pursuit of pleasure if it was for pleasure’s sake. But it’s not. She’s broken on the inside. But instead of working on trying to fix the brokenness in herself, she only makes it worse. She does make an attempt to fix the broken pieces with her steady boyfriend, James, but in the end, she can’t accept he loves her because she can’t love herself.

If one looks beyond the numerous sex scenes. The judgment of women as sexual creatures. The cautionary tale with this novel is self-love is probably the greatest love of all. If you can’t love yourself first how are you ever going to be able to love anyone else no matter what decade you’re living in?

Reflections in Time by Elizabeth Crane (2020)

HPC College Student

Dorchester Publishing‘s imprint, Lovespell, had a series called “Timeswept” in the 1990s, which involved 20th-century women being transported to the past.

Retna O’Neal experiences cold feet regarding the prospects of marriage to her boring fiance. She has become obsessed with the lives of The Blues in a local cemetery. The obsession leads to insomnia she attempts to manage by hypnosis. During this process, she enters the body of Callie Blue, wife of Nathan Blue.

The slipping into/out Callie’s consciousness as Renta goes through hypnosis was an interesting approach to time travel. What surprised me the most, though, was how well the story tackled the consequences of incest and made it valid to the plot’s progression. Most romantic novels settle for the fantasy rather than provide commentary on the exploitation of women (especially children). The romance is there, though.

If you’re interested in the entire Timeswept back catalog, click here.

Jew of Des Moines: The First Century by Frank Rosenthal (2020)

Jews of Iowa

All the positive accomplishments of those who practiced the Jewish faith during the first century of Iowa statehood. This includes everything from establishing temples, businesses, and charity work.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s fantastic these accomplishments should be mentioned. But this book was published in the late 1950s. The atrocities of World War II had to be fresh even to a Gentile’s mind (who wasn’t the main audience for this book). I expected to find some mention of Anti-Semitism if not in Iowa, then elsewhere. Nothing. Not one thing. Reading this from my current perspective I would have to assume:

  1. If it was not mentioned it didn’t exist in Iowa,
  2. The book was written for a mostly Jewish audience who were more than aware of Anti-Semitism so why mention it when you already well aware of its existence?

This book is a product of its time and should be viewed strictly from that lense.

If you’re looking for something with a more well-rounded take on Jewish history in Iowa, check out:

  • 100th Anniversary, 1914-2014: Celebrating a Century of Benevolence. Des Moines, Iowa: Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, 2014.
  • Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa. New Day Films. Videocassette. 1999. 56 minutes.
  • Or better yet visit Iowa Jewish Historical Society Museum located in Waukee, Iowa.

Bibliographic Information: Rosenthal, Frank. The Jews of Des Moines: The First Century. Des Moines, Iowa: Jewish Welfare Federation, 1957.

My Lord, Lady, and Gentleman (2018)

CoverI came across an NPR article a year ago recommending different romance authors. I’m glad I gave Nicola Davidson a try. My afternoon was not wasted.

Susanna stared at him blankly. “What? How can that be? Why can’t you make up your mind?”

This heartfelt question by one of the lead characters sums up the heart of this story. Surrendering to one’s heart and desires is far more satisfying than surrendering to the narrow-mindedness of any age. Great characterization, historical details, and the fine plot made this a fast read (yes I read this in three hours).

The Other Lady Vanishes (2018)

otherladyvanishesI read a lot of Jayne Ann Krentz and per pseudonyms as a teen. I picked this up expecting to experience some nostalgia. Amanda Quick aka Jayne Ann Krentz’s 1930s romantic thriller was an utter disappointment.

One of the things Krentz does exceptionally well is she knows how to weave an interesting plot to keep me turning pages. Now, if you’ve read any of her books, her plots are pretty much identical whether she’s using pseudonyms or not. A misunderstood girl falls for misunderstood boy + someone ends up dead + have to solve mystery + killer is caught/dies = they admit their undying love and live happily ever after. There is nothing wrong with a formula that works and works well. However, my biggest problem with this story is setting and dialogue.

If I had picked up this book without reading the back cover, I would not have known it was supposed to be set in the 1930s. I picked up Family Man which I have at home and compared the dialogue in that novel to this one. I get using the same word choices for things, but Family Man and The Other Lady Vanishes are supposed to be set in different eras. Sure, Krentz throws in a little clothing description and mentions of old-time Hollywood in The Other Lady Vanishes, but it’s not enough for me to believe this novel was set in the 1930s. People spoke differently then, used slang different than current norms, and had different ways of looking at the world than today. I know the genre and its expectations, but at least try to be true to the period. Krentz can’t even manage that.

This book killed any hope of me experiencing the nostalgia of my teens. I probably won’t be reading any more of Krentz’s books. If Krentz can’t manage to do actual research beyond Wikipedia pages, I’ll spend the time I could have used to read her next novel and read someone else.

Damnation (2017)

damnation-key-art-1506718760717_610w_720I’ve watched the first three episodes of USA’s Damnation, and I’m torn. The writer in me is enjoying the characters and plot. The historian in me, however, hates this show.

I don’t think the writers of Damnation have read any books about Iowa history. I felt they watched episodes of Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood and thought, heck, let’s just make Damnation like Deadwood. Let’s have shootouts and whorehouses and gunslingers. We’ll just put people in 1930s clothing. No one will notice or care. Their blog post isn’t history at all. It’s just some lazy links to websites. The writer could at least have tried to be somewhat true to Iowa history. Since the writers don’t feel they have to, I will. Here’s my counter to their blog post.

1. The Great Depression & Labor Strikes: 

The farmers of Iowa’s anger had been simmering for nearly a decade before it exploded into demonstration and violence in the 1930s [Ossian, 22]. Farmers wanted better money for their commodities. They picketed. They blocked roads. Violence did occur, but death was rare. Some individuals such as Mother Bloo who was a communist supporter of the neighboring state of South Dakota wanted violence. She attempted to rile up the natives of Sioux City [Mills, A Judge, 55]. She blamed banks and big business for the farmers’ troubles. She and others like her lost their leverage when New Deal programs provided farmers better subsidies [Mills, A Judge, 58].

2. Prohibition: 

Prohibition in Iowa didn’t begin with the Volstead Act. Iowa was dry long before the rest of the nation and would impose strict laws on liquor by the drink decades past the federal repeal in 1933 [Mills, Looking in Windows, 118; “Iowa Ends 47 Year Drouth”]. Iowa farmers, especially in western counties such as Templeton, banded together to thwart state and federal law and keep their farmers and communities afloat by manufacturing, selling and transporting illegal liquor [Bauer, 7].

3. The Black Legion:

Nope. Nope. And nope. The Black Legion may have been in Michigan and Ohio, but not in Iowa. Do the writers have a map? Are Michigan and Ohio anywhere near Iowa? Why not focus on the Farmer’s Holiday Association [Karr, 637]. Instead, they focus on a radical group that never really had a stronghold in the state [Langton, “Time Machine”]. Even the KKK was limited in Iowa. Since Iowa’s black population was very small in rural areas [Outside In, 28-30], most of the violence and agitation was directed at Catholics. Those that called themselves KKK members were unorganized and ineffective. They spent most of their time infighting [Schwieder, 307]. By the mid-1920s, the KKK began to lose their political power in Iowa as well as elsewhere in the country [Schwieder, 298].

Sources:

  • Bauer, Bryce T. Gentlemen Bootleggers. Ebook. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2014. 
  • “Iowa Ends 47 Year Drouth on Liquor-by-the-Drink.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois: 6 July 1963.
  • Karr, Rodney D. “Farmer Rebels in Plymouth County, Iowa, 1932-1933.” The Annals of Iowa 47, no. 7 (1985): 637-645.
  • Langton, Diane. “Time Machine: History of the Klan in Iowa.” The Gazette. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: 7 October 2017. Accessed: 4 December 2017.
  • Mills, George. A Judge and a Rope and Other Stories of Bygone Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1994.
  • Mills, George. Looking In Windows Surprising Stories of Old Des Moines. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1991.
  • Ossian, Lisa L. The Depression Dilemmas of Rural Iowa, 1929-1933. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2011.
  • Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. “A Farmer and the Ku Klux Klan in Northwest Iowa.The Annals of Iowa 61, no. 3 (2002): 286–320.

Flora’s Secret (2015)

32316856One way to create tension is to force your characters into a tight little space and let them fight it out. Davison, forces her characters to do exactly this in the first installment of her Flora Maguire Series.

This historical who-done-it had me turning pages until the end to where the murderer is revealed. Davison doesn’t make it easy. She fills the story with enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing until the end.

Looking forward to reading the next installment in the series.

The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend (2015)

jazzledgedBix is the go-to biography for anyone wanting to dig into the short and tragic life of the Davenport native. Leon uses the words of Bix’s contemporaries and friends to show Bix at his greatest: on the stage with a cornet in his hands. His worst: drowning his insecurities in endless bottles of gin. The jazz band’s nomadic lifestyle in the 1920s coupled with the instability of employment and the illegal, but free-flowing liquor only compounded Bix’s problems. By the book’s conclusion, I understood Bix in a way I hadn’t before. The jazz culture breathed life and purpose into him, but no matter how beautifully he played, or how much praise he received, he could never live up to his own expectations, and that’s what really got him in the end.

Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History 1904-1930  (2013)

chicagoA great look into south-side Chicago where jazz found its home. Kenney touches on the players and racial tensions that made Chicago jazz different from New York or New Orleans or elsewhere. Highly recommended for the music enthusiast or history lover.

Strong Female Characters by Marcy Kennedy (2013)

strong-female_thumb.jpgI just finished a short craft book on strong female characters (yes, that’s the title too). Marcy Kennedy strips her advice down to a dozen or more pages. Heck, I think I read the entire thing in a half hour, which I thought worked in Kennedy’s favor.

Here are her tips:

  • They must be smart and self-reliant. Some vulnerability is okay, but not too much.
  • If she gets in a jam, she always escapes on her own and never relies on someone else to do it.
  • Makes all of her decisions and doesn’t take the back seat to no one.
  • Stands up for what she believes in.
  • Can stand side-by-side or toe-to-toe with a man knowing they are different but equal.
  • And how do you make these women empathetic?
    1. Show what made them who they are
    2. Show them something she loves
    3. Show them someone who loves her.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

“Isn’t that what every marriage is, anyway? Just a lengthy game of he said, she said?”

Gone Girl (Review)Is the gist of Gillian Flynn’s thriller, Gone Girl. On the morning of Amy and Nick ‘s fifth anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife gone and his home in shambles. Something horrible happened to Amy and all eyes focus on Nick. He has to be the murder, doesn’t he? Told in first person accounts by Nick and Amy, Flynn offers us a glimpse into the lives of two terribly damaged people. In the closest of relationships, we see people for who they really are. And sometimes, for better or worse really is the worst.

Gone Girl is a great example of the unreliable narrator. Each character has their own agenda. They’ll lie, cheat, steal, and even murder to get what they want. In real life, we wouldn’t want to be in the same room with them. But that’s what’s great about fiction. For a few hours, we invite despicable characters to play with our thought, but when the hours are up and the book closes they leave and our lives are unscathed, if only ’til the next book.

Other unreliable narrator examples: Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nabokov’s Lolita, Palahniuk’s Fight Club & Homes’ The End of Alice

Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg (2012)

Annie's Ghosts (Review)His mother was an only child. Only his mother wasn’t an only child.

After his mother’s death, Steve Luxenberg discovers that he had a disabled aunt. Why did his mother go to such great lengths to hide her existence? In order to answer this question, the author takes the reader on a quest through the labyrinth of family secrets and asks important questions about the history of mental illness (both patient, doctor and the institution) in the United States.

Sad, compelling and an intriguing read.

Full Service by Scotty Bowers (2012)

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood & the Secret Sex Lives of Stars (Review)Scott Bowers in his titillating memoir recounts his unfortunate adolescent growing in the Great Depression, his time in World War II, and later serving as a gigolo/pimp for the Hollywood elite. While parts of his childhood would be classified as horrific by many people’s standards, Bowers looks back without any rancor or guilt. He’s also not afraid to spill the secrets of the dead (Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Vivian Leigh, Rita Hayworth, and Cary Grant to name a few…). How many of these secrets are true? I suppose that’s between Bowers and the stars.

An entertaining read (if one can get past the first couple of chapters).

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Argrim (2012)

ee003-nellyPeople probably remember Alison Angrim best for her portrayal of Nellie Oleson on the long-running television series, Little House on the Prairie. The author went on to become a stand-up comedian, an advocate for A.I.D.S and incest victims. In her biography, she recounts her unorthodox upbringing by her actor parents, her seven-year stint on the popular television series, and her life after Little House. Amgrim channeled Nellie’s inner ‘bitchiness’ to overcome her terrible childhood and use her character’s forthright nature to change things for the greater good.

An absorbing, heartfelt read…

50 Shades of Gray by E.L. James (2012)

50 Shades of Grey (Review)I’m not one to jump on the literary bandwagon, but after several friends and the latest EW’s review commented on this book, I thought I’d give it a try.

The book’s protagonist, Ana, is an innocent girl about to graduate from college. When her friend/roommate falls ill, she’s roped into interviewing the enigmatic Christian Grey. Their attraction is instant and Grey seduces Ana into dominant/submission relationship. There is very little plot. The characters don’t rise above their stereotypes and the only thing that saves this book is the titillating sex scenes. This is pure escapist reading. Don’t expect much more.
Other suggestions: Memories of Fanny Hill (1748), Frank & I (1902)& there is an entire sub-genre of modern erotica fiction out there. One can just run a search at any BN.com or Amazon.com. Also, the movie the Secretary w/ James Spader & Maggie Gyllenhaal deals with a dominant/submission relationship.

The Art & Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom (2010)

ca5b2-historica2bfictionI’m all over the place with my reading. Usually I have a books in about every room, all in some state of incompletion. One book I finished recently The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom, who has good insite into writing about the genre. But I was a little put off by some of his chapters. Especially the one dealing with credibility.

Thom states that many scholars of non-fiction snub their noses at historical fiction. While he gives the merits of both, he has an entire section degrating what he calls ‘costume porn’.
Novels are supposed to trasnsport the reader to another time and place. It’s entertainment. And whether you dislike the genre or not, it sells–and sells well. Walk into a big chain book store and you can see it for yourself. Or second-hand book stores have shelves and shelves of romantic fiction. The first historical fiction book I can remember reading was in fact a historical romance by Catherine Hart. I still have this book. More for sentimental reasons than anything. I tried reading it again a couple of years ago and cringed at the wooden dialogue and obvious anachronisms. I know there are plenty of great historical romance novels out here. Many writers in a historical critique forum I belong to, write great historical romance. But if it wasn’t for the forum, I wouldn’t read this fiction. My palate has changed over the years.