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text 2019-03-22 19:46
Reading progress update: I've read 127 out of 1024 pages.
Franco: A Biography - Paul Preston

There is a depressing familiarity to much of what Preston describes about Franco's drift towards opposing the Second Republic. In the early 1930s, he was a avid subscriber of newsletters constantly bewailing the threat of Communism, which fed his fears that a Popular Front government would be the prelude to a Communist takeover of Spain. Such fears, as unrealistic as they were, helped to justify previously unthinkable actions that would plunge Spain into war and dictatorship.

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text 2019-03-22 02:25
Reading progress update: I've read 69 out of 1024 pages.
Franco: A Biography - Paul Preston

This book has been on my TBR stack for quite some time; I even owned a copy for years before selling it out of despair of ever getting to it. My commitment last year to learning more Spanish history helped to make it a priority, though, and now I'm tackling it at last.

 

And so far it's living up to its promise. Preston has a reputation for being forthright with his opinions but so far I'm not having a problem with this, perhaps because I find so many of his judgments to be credible. But I still have a long way to go in this book.

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review 2019-03-19 21:13
Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (Hunter)
Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star - Tab Hunter

Tab Hunter (real name Arthur Gelien) was only vaguely known to me as an actor - his movie acting career was essentially over before I became aware of such things, and his TV appearances were too infrequent and minor to register. However, his name came up now and then, as I grew interested in figure skating culture and history, as a fairly long-term partner of Robbie Robertson, perennial silver medalist and quite possibly the greatest spinner of all time (check out youtube if you don't believe me). Hunter skated competitively himself a bit in his youth, enough that he was cast (with Dick Button!) in a Hans Brinker movie. After this biography was published in 2005 - and again after it received publicity with the release of a documentary about him in 2015 - I also learned to link his name with that of Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, and other closeted Hollywood leading men.

 

I quite enjoyed most of this autobiography. It is neither morbid nor thoughtless (the blond good looks of his youth do not indicate a brainless bimbo). The details of the staged romances with up-and-coming actresses like Natalie Wood are told matter-of-factly. There is definitely a hint of self-pity in his recounting of the way the studios treated him, but it's no more than you'd expect, and it's clearly mitigated by the older actor's understanding that he had a very good ride in the jet set era, financially and in terms of lifestyle. He name-drops like mad, of course, and we'd expect nothing less. And a warning to readers of the e-book/Kindle version - the photo section has been shunted unceremoniously to the end of the book, without any sort of table of contents entry, but it is there. The photos are interesting, though small in their e-version, and the beefcake ones, aimed explicitly at the female population, provoke admiration and wry smiles at the same time.

 

There were moments when I didn't much like Mr. Hunter, from his own account, though they were relatively few. One of those was his entirely uncalled-for use of "fag" (twice) to describe certain hangers-on in his social circle when he was at the height of his financial success. Yes, yes, I know, re-appropriation, but this was clearly a dismissive use, and perhaps not unexpected from a man whose conventional masculinity was his major selling point. And perhaps this usage might not have grated quite so much when the book was published, 13 years before I read it.

 

Those interested in the shenanigans of the Hollywood studio system (Hunter and Natalie Wood were the last actors put under those famous long-term contracts), and the creepy world of agents, with sidelights on the spaghetti western scene in Italy and the world of Hunter's real passion, raising and training horses for show-jumping, will find lots to interest them in this book. Those interested in salacious details of the lives of actors like Rock Hudson (for whose career Hunter is convinced his own was sacrificed) and Tony Perkins (with whom he had a relationship for a while) will have to look elsewhere, since this is a man of the mid 20th century after all.

 

Recommended as a useful counteractive to the official Hollywood narrative of the time, for its unexpected little additions to figure skating history (he has nothing but good things to say about Dick Button, by the way), and as a rather interestingly reflective late-life autobiography of someone you might consider to be a bit of a Salieri; a mediocre career (and he knows it) but still celebrated.

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review 2019-03-17 23:51
E.J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division
E.J. Waggoner: From The Physician Of Good News To The Agent Of Division - Woodrow W. Whidden

One of the pivotal figures at the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference sessions, he did not plan to follow his father into ministry but when he did he tragically followed his example.  Woodrow W. Whidden’s E.J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division follows not only the life of the Adventism’s most controversial figures, but also the developments of his theological thinking which both contributed to Seventh-day Adventist thinking and to his separation from Adventist doctrines.

 

Whidden brought the most out of limited sources available to detail Waggoner’s life beginning with the troubled family life of his troubled Adventist minister father and egotistical, uncaring mother.  Waggoner’s family were encouraged and rebuked by Ellen White throughout the young E.J.’s childhood and his home life might have led to heartbreak later in his life.  Not wanting to follow his father into the ministry, Waggoner studied medicine and became friends with John Harvey Kellogg as he began his career in medicine which came to an end after a “vision” at a campmeeting in which Waggoner was impressed by Christ on the cross and began his lifelong theological study of justification and sanctification.  Upon entering the ministry, Waggoner became was prolific in preaching, lecturing, writing, and in editorial work for the next two decades in both the United States and Great Britain but that would later result in have no time to nurture his marriage resulting in a scandalous divorce after his family’s return to the United States.  The lead up and aftermath of the 1888 Minneapolis is hinge of the biography and Whidden analyzes Waggoner’s role thoroughly.  Yet the most interesting aspect of the biography was Whidden’s analysis of Waggoner’s theology on justification and sanctification throughout his life divided into four time frames by Whidden.

 

The difficulty of finding sources to chronicle Waggoner’s life did not deflect from Whidden’s achievement in revealing the numerous facets of his subject’s life especially in the lead up to the “biggest” scandal in Adventism at the time with Waggoner’s divorce.  The most important aspect of the book was Whidden’s in-depth discussing of Waggoner’s evolving theological beliefs, especially justification and sanctification, and how his bent towards mysticism as well as his slow moving away from distinct Adventist doctrines.  Another important aspect is Whidden’s analysis of Ellen White’s interactions with Waggoner both in encouragement and concerned rebuke as well as if Waggoner’s later theological beliefs takeaway his emphasis on his Christ-centered message before, during, and after 1888.  If there is on serious drawback is that Whidden’s study of Waggoner’s theology is very deep and can be a tad mindboggling.

 

E.J. Waggoner is an insightful look into the life of one of the most important second generation figures in Adventism.  Woodrow Whidden’s expert work on getting out the most from the few primary sources available as well as his theological analysis is a great asset for any reader in Seventh-day Adventist biography and history.

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review 2019-03-15 17:52
The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre
The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing - Merve Emre

This book was a disappointment. I looked forward to it: I went through a phase of interest in the Myers-Briggs as a teenager, and so was eager to learn more about it. Unfortunately, after a fascinating introduction in which the author delves into the almost cult-like atmosphere of Myers-Briggs training (in an attempt to get access to Isabel Myers’s archives, the author was required to pay $2000 for a week of “re-education,” which was pretty much as it sounds), this turns into a dull biography of the test’s creators. Ultimately, I had to turn to the internet to provide basic information about the test left out of the book.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, sorts people into sixteen categories of “personality types” based on their expressed preferences. This “indicator” (its devotees insist that it is not a test because there are no right or wrong answers) was developed by two housewives, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers. Though both were college graduates, neither was formally trained in psychology. Briggs, born in the late 19th century, was an amateur psychologist who developed a fascination with Carl Jung and his writings later in life. Myers later picked up where her mother left off, working during the WWII era to develop a test that would assist companies in finding workers who were the best fit for the job based on their personalities.

The book is mostly devoted to describing their lives, which unfortunately are too mundane to warrant this length, and Emre doesn’t quite bring them to life. But she’s far more interested in the lives of Briggs and Myers and than in the test itself. For instance, she writes about efforts to scientifically validate the test, but is entirely concerned with the emotional dimensions of these efforts (how the men doing the studies treated Isabel Myers, and how Myers felt about that) rather than the scientific ones (I finished this book not knowing what “validation” even means in the context of a personality test). And she promises more drama in their lives than is actually there: claiming in the introduction, for instance, that their personality-testing obsession cost both women their marriages when it did no such thing; at worst it sometimes irritated their husbands.

 

Information about the test itself is dropped haphazardly; she tells us that Jung meant something different from “introversion” and “extraversion” than we do today, but then never returns to that change or discusses the evolution of any of the other categories. She tells us that the creators thought the test was only really useful with more intelligent people and those of higher socioeconomic status (apparently the lowly didn't get personalities), but then follows up with no actual data about the less advantaged. I don't know about you, but I'm more interested in whether, and how, the test is racist or classist, than the obviously outdated views of its creators. But Emre only shares the latter, hinting that there might be classist issues with the test but never telling us what they are.

Likewise, the couple of sections that are more about the test than its creators focus on extraneous information or the author’s thought experiments. For instance, a chapter about a group of researchers who had prominent people spend the weekend together in a house to take a battery of tests focuses on subjects like how Truman Capote charmed the staff, and the career of a female researcher who happened to work there, rather than what was learned from all of this and how it fits into the history of personality testing. And at the end, rather than presenting real data or even real anecdotes about how the MBTI is used in the modern era, the author traces hypothetical women of different generations through their imaginary lives and where they might theoretically have encountered the test.

Emre is clearly not an MBTI devotee herself, but she declines to fully discuss the issues with the test, instead dismissing them as too oft-repeated, as if this made a criticism less worthy of attention rather than more so. In an interview, she stated:

I think even talking about validity and reliability sort of misses that point—because it asks whether these tests are really measuring what they purport to be measuring and whether they show the same thing over time, and those are questions for scientists, or psychologists. As a humanist I want to preempt those questions because even they are premised on assumptions that the systems and language that we use to describe people have some kind of basis in truth. I don’t think they do.

Which, first, what? I suspect most people interested in a book about the MBTI do think those questions are important, and are more interested in the facts than the author’s philosophical maunderings. (Unfortunately, she’s an English professor with a Master’s of Philosophy – not a historian, journalist or scientist.) And second, if the author’s point – as she suggests in the book, and as is even suggested by Katherine Briggs – is that the MBTI is a sort of religion for its devotees, rendering its validity beside the point, then why doesn’t she delve into that, introduce us to some of these people whose lives have been changed by it? Study the community of practitioners and the test’s impact on their lives? But no, we don’t get that either.

For those who are actually interested in the MBTI’s validity, here is a good scientific article about it, and here are several other relevant articles. What I learned that is not in the book:

1) A method for determining the reliability of a personality test is “test-retest reliability,” or whether people taking it more than once get the same result. Up to 50% of MBTI takers get a different result on a second test, even as little as 5 weeks later. (Its devotees insist, however, that type never changes, so these people must be doing it wrong.)

2) But perhaps a bigger problem is that human traits rarely fit into dichotomies, which form the foundation of the MBTI. Most human traits actually fall on a bell curve, with most people in the middle, and increasingly smaller numbers of people the further from the middle you go. The MBTI’s own data reveals a bell curve, or “normal distribution,” for its results too, but then uses a cutoff score to describe the results in terms of two distinct, non-overlapping groups. In reality, people aren’t divided between “introverts” and “extraverts,” any more than we’re divided into the short and the tall; someone who scores barely introverted has far more in common with someone who scores barely extraverted than with an extreme introvert.

3) And then there are the actual traits used, which haven’t been borne out in psychological research to be a useful or relevant way of describing personality (which is why psychologists don’t use the MBTI). Research backs up a different group of five traits, only one of which overlaps: extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism (i.e. emotional stability). You see why these are less popular though: few people want to be seen as sloppy, disagreeable, or emotionally unstable. This test would be far less fun.

4) Statistical analysis doesn’t support that the four MBTI factors are independent of one another, and there is no proven correlation between MBTI results and success in particular jobs or relationships. This is unsurprising to me, given what a rough measure it is. Something like “introversion” can come out in a wide variety of ways – I’m quite introverted in my personal life, but probably tilt extraverted at work – so a simple “E” or “I” tells you nothing useful about someone as an employee and can even be actively misleading.

At any rate, you won’t find scientific information in this book, nor learn much about personality testing, or even much about the MBTI itself. Go for it if you want an overlong, dull biography of two housewives who created a test that's never fully discussed, but otherwise, go elsewhere.

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