Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke

Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke

This was an incredibly fun non-fiction to read, the perfect book to carry around in your bag. It’s a conversation starter, a laugh-out-loud-on-the-train commute/waiting room/airplane/sit-by-the-pool-and-watch-butts-walk-by kind of read. I thoroughly enjoyed it on multiple levels.

First, on content: Radke’s research is well done. This is not an academic, peer reviewed piece of scholarship, but it is a well-researched, chronological and multi-disciplinary perspective on that part of our body we might often despise/regret/wish hidden/love/extoll/exhibit. Butts begins with an evolutionary explanation, a physiological treatise in what, why, and how we have butts at all and what they do for us. It then moves on into history proper, working to the present, and ending with a significant number of chapters focused on butts in the contemporary moment (Kim Kardashian and others) and in popular Western culture. [Radke is up front with the Western-centric focus of her study; this is a commentary on butts as understood in Western culture and history and is not a global study.]

Second, prose: Radke’s delivery is on point for a non-academic, general audience non-fiction. The prose is smooth, hilarious in so many parts, and remains lighthearted throughout, even when the content gets heavy and educational.

Whatever you feelings and thoughts about butts, backsides, or bottoms, Butts is a great read.

They’re Going to Love You: A Novel by Meg Howrey

They’re Going to Love You: A Novel by Meg Howrey

This one is a quiet burn, the kind of novel that leads to a swell of deep and intense emotion at the end. You’re left, Reader, with a sense of loss at the end, a feeling that you’ve experienced something very intimate, that maybe you shouldn’t have, but you had to — and you did — and now you’re left to think about the memory of the novel. They’re Going to Love You sticks in your mind like taffy to the roof of your mouth, a lingering taste of sweet and salty. Maybe a little sour.

They’re Going to Love You is a story about parenting, being a child, being a child to parents who are human and flawed. It is also a story about the fragility of relationships and the unpredictable strength of them. It’s a story about the trials of family, the values that are assumed in a family unit, assumed because of blood and marriage and birth. It is also a story of betrayal and grief, of not having what we assume we should have or of losing what we felt we should never have been able to lose.

The novel revolves around and is narrated through the eyes of a young girl who becomes a young woman and then a middle aged woman. She is a dancer and the daughter of dancers, ballet dancers in the heady and chaotic New York city scene of the mid-twentieth century. The father is a gay man, openly so, and there is a step-father. Then there is her mother, a former ballerina. The parents expect a lot from the girl. This is a story about expectations and hopes and dreams that are ours and also, not our own.

As the girl grows up there are things she learns about her privileged life and the expectations of her privileged life and the ways in which people look at her from outside her life. She learns about love from her parents and from their divorce and from their forced interactions on her account. She learns about love from her father’s gay friends. She learns about betrayal from her parents and what it means to forgive.

The novel is also about death and the finiteness of this life and of love. It is about realities underlying the fantasy of a ballet-infused, performed life.

Howrey’s prose is stark and cutting. It is dark and yet also childish, implying childhood is in fact a darker space and time than we are often led to believe. The characters are children and adults and you are not sure who is the adult and who is the child sometimes. The dialogue is authentic, sometimes painfully so, too reminiscent of our own familial traumas.

There is an element of this book that prickled me, for as much as I praise it: the characters are insufferably privileged. They are white, wealthy, part of the exclusive milieu of pretentious NYC. The main character is a nepo baby, whether she thinks so or not. So is her father. Intergenerational privilege abounds in this novel. This is a world that exists for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the world’s population. It’s not my world, for sure.

But, that is what novels are for (in part): entries into worlds unknown.

Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s By Margaret K. Nelson

Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s
By Margaret K. Nelson

I was very excited to read this book by sociologist, Margaret Nelson. As a historian of mid-twentieth century culture and politics, the title alone was titillating enough. Keeping Family Secrets did not disappoint.

The book is divided into sections, each one addressing a particularly scandalous (for the time) family secret: homosexuality among boys (in particular), having a “red”, Communist-leaning parent (or one accused of being a “Commie”), the institutionalization of a sibling or a child, having Jewish ancestry, and others. To our contemporary minds, such facts of life are hardly worth mentioning in some communities; no one would bat an eye at a child of unwed parentage, for example, in most communities today. But that is where Nelson’s historical scholarship shines. Keeping Family Secrets transports the reader to an era in which such things did matter and mattered a lot. The book focuses not only on the scandal itself, but more so on the consequences of those scandals on the other family members and the long-term trauma and emotional damage they experience long after society has moved on from the shock of such events. The bulk of Nelson’s sources were published memoirs of siblings, survivors, and family members. Indeed, there are fantastic references for further reader for readers interested in specific histories and stories.

Embedded in the historical and archival analysis are the voices of the family members who suffered innocently, either as children or as siblings, as a result of their families’ secrets. What Nelson reveals is the collective, societal, and intergenerational trauma that forced conformity and cultural norms can inflict across decades.

Keeping Family Secrets is highly accessible, not only in terms of content, but in its prose and language. It delivers a very readable piece of non-fiction. I hesitate to suggest it would be good for an undergraduate college audience, but parts of it would be enjoyable and easily accessible for use in the classroom or in a course in general.

Great Short Books: A Year of Reading Briefly by Kenneth C. Davis

Great Short Books: A Year of Reading Briefly by Kenneth C. Davis

A book about books! I love it! I don’t usually read books that review other books, but I was interested in building up the classics in my TBR (To Be Read) list and thought, sure, why not? I am so glad I did because Davis’s short reviews, not only of the short book he recommends, but also the vignettes of the author and the tidbits about their other novels inspired me to produce a Classics Reading Challenge on my Storygraph page. [You can find it here.]

What I really enjoyed about Great Short Books were the depth of the reviews and discussion around the novel. Davis gave enough information about the novel to intrigue, but not too much as to spoil the desire to read it myself. The authors too, though I’d read many of them already, became more fully fleshed out in my mind as people, more than merely producers of the works I love to read.

If you’re looking to expand and explore new literary choices, Great Short Books delivers the perfect small-bites information you need to fuel your own adventure.

My New Classics Reading Challenge Inspired by Davis’ book:

1. The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia 

The glitter and cynicism of Rome under Mussolini provide the background of what is probably Alberto Moravia’s best and best-known novel — The Woman of Rome. It’s the story of Adriana, a simple girl with no fortune but her beauty who models naked for a painter, accepts gifts from men, and could never quite identify the moment when she traded her private dream of home and children for the life of a prostitute.

2. The Conformist by Alberto Moravia 

Secrecy and Silence are second nature to Marcello Clerici, the hero of The Conformist, a book which made Alberto Moravia one of the world’s most read postwar writers. Clerici is a man with everything under control – a wife who loves him, colleagues who respect him, the hidden power that comes with his secret work for the Italian political police during the Mussolini years. But then he is assigned to kill his former professor, now exiled in France, to demonstrate his loyalty to the Fascist state, and falls in love with a strange, compelling woman; his life is torn open – and with it the corrupt heart of Fascism. Moravia equates the rise of Italian Fascism with the psychological needs of his protagonist for whom conformity becomes an obsession in a life that has included parental neglect, an oddly self-conscious desire to engage in cruel acts, and a type of male beauty which, to Clerici’s great distress, other men find attractive.

3. Two Women by Alberto Moravia 

FIRST PUBLISHED in English in 1958, Two Women is a compassionate yet forthright narrative of simple people struggling to survive in war. The two women are Cesira, a widowed Roman shopkeeper, and her daughter Rosetta, a naive teenager of haunting beauty and devout faith. When the German occupation of Rome becomes imminent, Cesira packs a few provisions, sews her life savings into the seams of her dress, and flees with Rosetta to her native province of Ciociara, a poor, mountainous region south of Rome.

Cesira’s currency soon loses its value, and a vicious barter economy, fraught with shifty traffickers and thieves, emerges among the mountain peasants and refugees. Mother and daughter endure nine months of hunger, cold, and filth as they await the arrival of the Allied forces. Cesira scarcely cares who wins the war, so long as victory comes soon and brings with it a return to her quiet shopkeeper’s life.

Instead, the Liberation brings tragedy. While heading back to Rome the pair are attacked by a group of Allied Moroccan soldiers, who rape Rosetta and beat Cesira unconscious. This act of violence and its resulting loss of innocence so embitters Rosetta that she falls numbly into a life of prostitution. Throughout these hardships Moravia offers up an intimate portrayal of the anguish wrought by the devastation of war, both on the battlefield and upon those far from the fray.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

In 1936 George Orwell travelled to Spain to report on the Civil War and instead joined the fight against the Fascists. This famous account describes the war and Orwell’s own experiences. Introduction by Lionel Trilling.

5. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson 

Running into a long-ago friend sets memories from the 1970s in motion for August, transporting her to a time and a place where friendship was everything—until it wasn’t. For August and her girls, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them.

But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion.

6. At Fault by Kate Chopin 

Widowed at thirty, beautiful, resourceful Therese Lafirme is left alone to run her Louisiana plantation. When Therese falls in love with David Hosmer, a divorced businessman, her strong moral and religious convictions make it impossible for her to accept his marriage proposal. Her determined rejection sets the two on a tumultuous path that involves Hosmer’s troubled former wife, Fanny.

At Fault is set in the Post-Reconstruction rural South against a backdrop of economic devastation and simmering racial tensions. Written at the beginning of her career, it has parallels to Chopin’s own life and contains characters and themes that prefigure her later works, including The Awakening.

7. Bayou Folk by Kate Chopin 

Short fiction by much-more-than-local-color-writer Kate Chopin. Includes Ma’ame Pelagie , a character who shows up again later.

8. Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers 

A powerful and passionate tale is set on a southern army post –a human hell inhabited by a sexually disturbed officer, his animalistic wife, her lover, and the driven young private who forces the drama to its climax…

9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers 

Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.

10. Black Boy by Richard Wright 

Black Boy is a classic of American autobiography, a subtly crafted narrative of Richard Wright’s journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. An enduring story of one young man’s coming of age during a particular time and place, Black Boy remains a seminal text in our history about what it means to be a man, black, and Southern in America.

11. Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann (0 books added)

Buddenbrooks, first published in Germany in 1901, when Mann was only twenty-six, has become a classic of modern literature.

It is the story of four generations of a wealthy bourgeois family in northern Germany facing the advent of modernity; in an uncertain new world, the family’s bonds and traditions begin to disintegrate. As Mann charts the Buddenbrooks’ decline from prosperity to bankruptcy, from moral and psychic soundness to sickly piety, artistic decadence, and madness, he ushers the reader into a world of stunning vitality, pieced together from births and funerals, weddings and divorces, recipes, gossip, and earthy humor.

In its immensity of scope, richness of detail, and fullness of humanity, buddenbrooks surpasses all other modern family chronicles. With remarkable fidelity to the original German text, this superb translation emphasizes the magnificent scale of Mann’s achievement in this riveting, tragic novel.

12. The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

The Dry Heart begins and ends with the matter-of-fact pronouncement: “I shot him between the eyes.” As the tale—a plunge into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation, and bitterness—proceeds, the narrator’s murder of her flighty husband takes on a certain logical inevitability. Stripped of any preciousness or sentimentality, Natalia Ginzburg’s writing here is white-hot, tempered by rage. She transforms the unhappy tale of an ordinary dull marriage into a rich psychological thriller that seems to beg the question: why don’t more wives kill their husbands?

13. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Today F. Scott Fitzgerald is better known for his novels, but in his own time, his fame rested squarely on his prolific achievement as one of America’s most gifted writers of stories and novellas. Now, a half-century after the author’s death, the premier Fitzgerald scholar and biographer, Matthew J. Bruccoli, has assembled in one volume the full scope of Fitzgerald’s best short fiction: forty-three sparkling masterpieces, ranging from such classic novellas as “The Rich Boy,” “May Day,” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” to his commercial work for the Saturday Evening Post and its sister “slicks.”
For the reader, these stories will underscore the depth and extraordinary range of Fitzgerald’s literary talents. Furthermore, Professor Bruccoli’s illuminating preface and introductory headnotes establish the literary and biographical settings in which these stories now shine anew with brighter luster than ever.

14. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (0 books added)

Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.

15. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros 

Every year, Ceyala “Lala” Reyes’ family–aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, and Lala’s six older brothers–packs up three cars and, in a wild ride, drive from Chicago to the Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother’s house in Mexico City for the summer. Struggling to find a voice above the boom of her brothers and to understand her place on this side of the border and that, Lala is a shrewd observer of family life. But when she starts telling the Awful Grandmother’s life story, seeking clues to how she got to be so awful, grandmother accuses Lala of exaggerating. Soon, a multigenerational family narrative turns into a whirlwind exploration of storytelling, lies, and life. Like the cherished rebozo, or shawl, that has been passed down through generations of Reyes women, Caramelo is alive with the vibrations of history, family, and love.

16. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin 

Set in the contemporary Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds  himself caught between desire and conventional  morality. James Baldwin’s brilliant narrative delves  into the mystery of loving with a sharp, probing  imagination, and he creates a moving, highly  controversial story of death and passion that reveals the  unspoken complexities of the heart.

17. If This Is A Man by Primo Levi 

Primo Michele Levi was a chemist and writer, the author of books, novels, short stories, essays, and poems. His unique 1975 work, The Periodic Table, linked to qualities of the elements, was named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as the best science book ever written.

Levi spent eleven months imprisoned at Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex (record number: 174,517) before the camp was liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive.

The Primo Levi Center, dedicated “to studying the history and culture of Italian Jewry,” was named in his honor.

18. July’s People by Nadine Gordimer 

For years, it had been what is called a “deteriorating situation.” Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family—liberal whites—are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July—the shifts in character and relationships—gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.

19. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer 

Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewarsship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.

20. The Inheritors by William Golding (1 book added)

When the spring came the people – what was left of them – moved back by the old paths from the sea. But this year strange things were happening, terrifying things that had never happened before. Inexplicable sounds and smells; new, unimaginable creatures half glimpsed through the leaves. What the people didn’t, and perhaps never would, know, was that the day of their people was already over.

From the author of Lord of the FliesThe Inheritors is a startling recreation of the lost world of the Neanderthals, and a frightening vision of the beginning of a new age.

Books you’ve added to this prompt:

21. Darkness Visible by William Golding 

At the height of the London blitz, a naked child steps out of an all-consuming fire. Miraculously saved yet hideously scarred, tormented at school and at work, Matty becomes a wanderer, a seeker after some unknown redemption. Two more lost children await him: twins as exquisite as they are loveless. Toni dabbles in political violence, Sophy in sexual tyranny. As Golding weaves their destinies together, as he draws them toward a final conflagration, his book lights up both the inner and outer darknesses of our time.

22. The Middle Passage by Charles Johnson 

Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is lost in the underworld of 1830s New Orleans. Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and the pawing hands of a schoolteacher hellbent on marrying him, he jumps aboard the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey which challenges our notions of freedom, fate and how we live together. Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative and philosophical allegory.

23. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan 

It is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at University College of London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence’s response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.

24. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani 

When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau.

25. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1 book added)

Cain’s first novel – the subject of an obscenity trial in Boston and the inspiration for Camus’s The Stranger – is the fever-pitched tale of a drifter who stumbles into a job, into an erotic obsession, and into a murder.

26. Sula by Toni Morrison (1 book added)

This rich and moving novel traces the lives of two black heroines from their close-knit childhood in a small Ohio town, through their sharply divergent paths of womanhood, to their ultimate confrontation and reconciliation.

Nel Wright has chosen to stay in the place where she was born, to marry, raise a family, and become a pillar of the black community. Sula Peace has rejected the life Nel has embraced, escaping to college, and submerging herself in city life. When she returns to her roots, it is as a rebel and a wanton seductress. Eventually, both women must face the consequences of their choices. Together, they create an unforgettable portrait of what it means and costs to be a black woman in America.

Wicked City: Stories of Old New York by Clifford Browder

Wicked City: Stories of Old New York by Clifford Browder

Oooo! What a slick collection of grimy, gruesome peeks under the golden veneer of the Gilded Age! The prose and tales in Wicked City are as smooth as the criminal characters in its pages, which is to say, if you, Reader, are a fan of urban grit and historical fiction, then this is the collection of stories for you. Wicked City reads like a literary revision of The Gangs of New York, but instead of Daniel Day Lewis, the lead is a very chic Edith Wharton — if Edith had a side hustle as a brothel Madam and if the brothel was run out of the Waldorf Hotel.

Make of that what you will. (I love Edith Wharton’s refined snark and the grubbiness of Gangs of New York.)

The stories in Wicked City are historical, but some things have been updated since the actual Gilded Age. Many of the tales are infused with modern sensibilities, that is, there are more enlightened notions around race, racism, class, and gender in these pages than perhaps there were in history. For example, Browder includes tales from Chinatown and addresses interracial marriage. Jingoism and nativism abound and are present, but Browder does justice to history by highlighting the non-White version of events in his fictions.

Many of the stories interweave, though some of the connections are subtle; there is a sense of dispersed, urban community woven throughout the collection. True to Browder’s work, this is an homage to New York and its history.

Unnatural Ends: A Novel by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends: A Novel
by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends reads like a French six-course dinner prepared and delivered by the latest cohort of Top Chef, served in the very classy digs of Downton Abbey, while you and your guests find yourself flung into a live-action Gosford Park; in short, this novel is the quintessential English manor-murder-mystery, updated for the 2022 reader. There is a hint of Mavis Hay’s (1936) Santa Klaus Murder here, a bit of Agatha Christie, and a good strong nod to the immorality of the British Empire (though, nothing quite so dark as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day). This novel is unbelievably English.

I loved it.

It did take me a few chapters to fully dig into the thrill of the case, but the family was so immediately deranged and dysfunctional, I couldn’t look away any more than if I encountered a train accident and found it to be the wreckage of the Orient Express.

The story begins with the death of the patriarch — his ghastly murder — and the strange clause in his will that disproportionately favors any of his adopted children who solves the crime. The novel unfolds from that point on in a predictable fashion for any mystery, but the ending and the twists of blood, family, and the loyalties of genetics kept this reader on her toes. Just when this reader thought she’d solved it, something emerged which threw her off! Between the three siblings, the pathetic mother and widow, the overbearing and sadistic father, and the eye-rolling police, Unnatural Ends delivers a very witty enjoyable read from start to finish.

For the reader who enjoys more than mystery, the novel also possesses several threads of underlying social and historical commentary. Britain’s dark imperial history, rife with its undeniable racism and eugenic standards of morality, are key foundational elements of the plot. Indeed, the cruel history of eugenics and colonialism are integral to the constituency of its characters and the motivations behind the twists and ruts of this mystery. On that note, however, the novel is not pedantic or a history lesson: it is wholly a mystery novel.

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir
by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

Every memoir is significant, on the basis that it documents a part of the human experience — and in the end, what do have if not an experience of life? In the context of the universe, this is what makes our existence unique — but there are some memoirs, some human experiences that possess a weightiness absent in others. That is, they reveal a humanity that transcends individual experience. The Education of Augie Merasty is one of these memoirs.

The cruel history of colonial settlement isn’t newly discovered — but it was hidden, deliberately and systematically for centuries. In the past fifty years and much more recently, excavations of memories, land, and archives have revealed the depth to which this erasure was taken. Merasty’s memoir is one of these excavations. [My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling (30th Anniversary Edition) is another memoir of residential schools and colonialism in Canada I’ve read this year, if you’re interested.]

I have an especial interest in these kinds of historical documents, not only as a historian of decolonization, but as an educator; the utility of the historical documents in the classroom are invaluable to convey the real effects of racism, colonialism, the power of the state in shaping our lives. Students often see the government as some kind of abstracted, remote thing, a hovering object over their lives that merely casts a shadow every once in awhile. Memoirs of this nature reveal how wrong that assumption is; the state is neither above nor below, it is embedded in every part of our lives and beings — even our DNA and the genomes that make up ourselves and our ancestry have been shaped by states and power. The Education of Augie Merasty is proof of the depth of the state in shaping human experience.

What makes The Education of Augie Merasty poignant is not only the memories he shares with the reader, but the whole of the story of this memoir’s making. The convoluted path and necessary involvement of the writer, David Carpenter — who serves as historian here — is a testament to the damage and legacy of settler colonialism in North America. The incompleteness of the stories, the silences and gaps in time and memory, as well as Augie’s language, preserved here by Carpenter, are evidence of the zigzag pathway that history is recorded, preserved, interpreted and ultimately used. As a tool to teach historical methodology, The Education of Augie Merasty is a fantastic case study.

The chronology of the memoir too, in the way it links the past to the present, is invaluable. Too often students see history as a static, buried thing of the past. That myth is a hard one to kill. But kill it we must, because history is not only the root of the present, it is also a reflection of our present selves and world. That is a key characteristic of history: Carpenter’s presence in these pages and the unresolved ending (unlike many memoirs, this is not posthumously produced) help to deliver this lesson.

Other aspects of the memoir make it even more perfect for classroom and course use: its length is short, its language is accessible, its story is compelling and shocking. The absence of larger historical events occurring in Canada and the world are also bonuses here too, allowing the instructor to compliment the text as appropriate to the course level.

Merasty’s memoir is one I will be considering for use in my courses.

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
by Malcolm Gaskill

Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches straddles the worlds of scholarship and fiction, the latter built on the solid foundations of the former. In doing so, this book takes the best of both literary domains to produce a richly detailed landscape of Puritan culture and society in England’s Old and New World. It centers on a Puritan couple, John and Mary, accused and tried for witchcraft in Thomas Pynchon’s New England. It starts long before their relationship begins and carries the reader through to its agonizing disintegration. Along the way, readers are engaged in the lives of a full cast of village denizens; this is a wonderfully immersive read.

Not merely backdrop to the main events, but integral for the reader’s understanding of the whys, whens, and hows of the witch hunts that followed, are the economic and political developments of Pynchon’s New England in the New World and the maneuverings of Royalists and Cromwellian supporters (rebels) in the Old. Gaskill delivers all the necessary context for the reader, leaving them with an almost palpable texture of English life in the 17th century (really, one can’t call this “American” in any sense of the word, though the New World does eventually become that.)

Readers should be prepared for a long read; detail like this does not come short, but the delivery is concise and succinct, leaving off unnecessary descriptions and fictions that do not add to the narrative. The descriptions that remain convey an authenticity, evidence of Gaskill’s skill of drawing out richness from (what is often, dry,) archival text. We can not only envision John and Mary, young and hopeful at the beginning, withered and waning at the end, but the humanity of their shortcomings are recognizable so as to make them and their community as near to us as our own flesh.

History, that remote and abstract object, comes alive in The Ruin of All Witches.

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror
Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this collection: Modern horror? Literary criticism? Traditional tales of terror? It intrigued me regardless.

What Unquiet Spirits delivers is a combination of all of the above. It is memoir, criticism, history, and ethnography in balanced fusion. Each chapter is written by an Asian female author and in it she discusses both her own writing, the cultural and historical inspiration for her characters, the origins of some feminine demon, ghost, or creepy — a unquiet spirit — which haunts her and the pages she has produced. In some chapters the author draws on a deeper well of literature of the past and ponders the future of the female spirit archetype that is the focus of their chapter.

The books is divided by and devotes its pages equally to feminine spirits across the Asian continent, from East to Southeast to South Asia. I was pleasantly surprised to see such attention given to Southeast Asian spirits and archetypes (my favorite was always the pontianak, the evil spirit of a woman who lurks in the dark under the protection of a banana tree. In my recollection, she can be “pinned” to the tree with a needle or a pin and made to do the pin-holder’s bidding. But, beware to that horrid individual if the offending metal is ever removed!)

While the collection examines different demons and feminine archetypes from across a swath of very diverse cultures, it ultimately makes a singular, united appeal to the reader. Their call to action is unmistakable: Asian women, as a whole, alive or dead, demonic or angelic, monstrous or victimized, are powerful beings. Asian women have been too long overlooked in the literary world and deserve more than the whispered, submissive voice they have been too long assigned by Orientalists; hear them shout, scream, screech!

For that reason alone, Unquiet Spirits is worth reading. But there is more.

The authors reveal facets of the Asian feminine that have rarely been visible, that is to Western audiences. To Asian women, we have always known they were there, even when our patriarchal societies told us to ignore them, to castigate them, to revile these demonic women as ill-influences on ourselves and our communities, yet still, Unquiet Spirits is sure to deliver novelties and new knowledge to Asian/Asian American readers.

The World’s Greatest Sea Mysteries (Non Fiction) by Mollie and Michael Hardwick

The World’s Greatest Sea Mysteries (Non Fiction) by Mollie and Michael Hardwick

This title lit up the 8-year old in me when I saw it. I remember loving those DK trivia books and collections of mysterious events. I am still a sucker for a book on sasquatches or sea monsters. The Hardwick’s collection did not disappoint. Each chapter recounts the tale and history of a vessel lost at sea, a spate of sea monster attacks, ghostly ships, and the like. The chapters are short, succinct, and leave the reader wanting to know more — and isn’t that the purpose of a mystery?

The prose is a bit dated — the Hardwicks wrote the original back in the 1967 — but there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, that kind of syntax adds a little historicity to the collection. There is something familiar about it and nostalgic in a way. But maybe that’s just me remembering my childhood and the long, lovely hours I spent reading books like these that let my imagination fly wild.