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review 2019-12-06 05:35
The One Where I Liked 2/3 of a Book.
Friends: A Cultural History - Jennifer C. Dunn

I've only read one other book in this series (Gilmore Girls: A Cultural History), which led to me expecting a few things from this book—most of which I didn't get (which is both a positive and a negative comment). I'm going to try not to spend too much time comparing the two books because it seems unfair—but it's inevitable, so . . .


When I requested that Gilmore Girls book on Netgalley, I noticed the publisher had a similar title about Friends available—and who doesn't like Friends? So, I requested that one, too—really diving into The Cultural History of Television. Granted, Dunn has more episodes to work from, but she does a better job of getting examples from all over the series—using different episodes/lines/characters to make related points rather than grabbing the same episode/line/character over and over and over again. One of the biggest strengths of the book is the depth of examples she musters for almost every point, reading this book is almost like binge-watching the entire series.


She begins with a chapter describing the success of the show, its place in the history of sitcoms—building on what had come before and shaping its successors. Then she moves on to looking at the impact of the show, its characters, and its actors on mainstream American pop culture—I do think she tried to make a little more hay than was warranted with some of the intertextual links she made in this chapter, but it came across as a quirk rather than a flaw. The third chapter discussed the way that the show replaced a biological family for a found family of friends as the core relationships for the characters. I really appreciated this section of the book and it gave me high hopes for the rest.


The third section of the book explores the legacy of Friends on American—and global—pop culture, as seen in fashion, music, memes, the way we talk (e.g., try to tell someone to pivot without invoking Ross trying to get his couch up the stairs), and the actors' future roles and shows. This part wasn't as strong as the first part of the book, but it was entertaining and an interesting way to think about the show. Dunn follows that with her list of the best 25 episodes, including an episode synopsis and a few sentences describing why that episode made the list. Fans will quibble over this list (for example, I think she got 15-18 of them right, and I can't understand why she picked the others)—but I can't imagine any fan not enjoying reading it.


The thing that makes me reticent to heartily recommend the book is the second section of the book, which includes the chapters: "Friends Happy Not Doing Too Much," "Friends Happy Not Thinking Too Much," "Thin, White, Upper-Middle-Class Friends," and "Stereotypes, Sexuality, and Friend-ly Tensions." Dunn states that this section "interrogates cultural identities represented on Friends." There is a lot of interesting material presented in this section—whether you ultimately agree with her analysis or not—and most of it is well-presented. However, it's a pretty problematic section. First, it assumes the readers will share her Progressive views (or at least hold ones close to hers) and that 2019 Progressive positions ought to provide the basis for evaluating the shows portrayal of characters/issues/themes, rather than the standards of the time the episodes were produced.


I'm not going to get into a point-by-point evaluation of these chapters, that's not what this post is about, I'm just looking at this broadly. For example, Dunn begins her chapter on the anti-intellectual bent of some of the humor by pointing to the re-election of George W. Bush as president as one bit of evidence to the rise of anti-intellectualism in the era. I'm not sure I see the wisdom in insulting conservatives, Republicans, or moderates who voted for Bush and who enjoy discussions of a beloved sitcom and might be reading the book.


Yes, the writers couldn't have made many of the jokes they did if the show was being produced now—but I'm not convinced that means they shouldn't have then. At one point (at least) Dunn does concede that 2019 standards are different from those of that era, but it doesn't stop her from criticizing aspects of the show for being products of their time. It seemed to me that at any point where she judged the show's treatment of something in these chapters, she condemned it rather than look for an opportunity to be charitable. Now, there is a certain amount of intellectual stimulation and pleasure to be found in arguing with a book—and my notes indicate that I did a lot of that during these chapters—but at a certain point I started wondering why someone who clearly disapproved of so much of the show would watch it as much as she clearly has. To me, that detracts from the overall experience.


I'm not trying to suggest that Dunn's criticisms are baseless, or that I disagree with everything she said in this section. I just think she comes across as unexpectedly antagonistic to the show and doesn't do herself any favors with many of her readers.

It's annoying that I had to spend that much time attempting to explain my problems with that section—it's dicey so I tried to do a good job of that, but now that's taken the majority of my space here. By importance, it should be about 1/3 of what I say about the book (maybe 40%). But to expand my comments on the rest would render this too long to read (and write, honestly).


I had one other stumbling block with the book—but this is more stylistic and is easily forgettable. You've probably read or heard the line: "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process." I've seen it variously attributed, but E. B. White seems the most likely candidate. It's a trite observation by now, but mostly because it's true. Dunn explains too many jokes for little profit—generally, they're jokes that don't require an explanation in the first place (especially for fans who know the joke, but I think it's true regardless) and her explanations frequently border on condescending. White (or Twain or whoever) would probably have been willing to say "Explaining a joke or a meme" had they been aware of the concept. Neither one of these things is a major issue, but it grates on the nerves and makes the experience less positive


Ultimately, while I enjoyed the Gilmore Girls entry more, I think this book makes the series seem more promising and will likely lead me to read more of it. On the whole, this was a very enjoyable read and die-hard fans will easily dive into most of the book and relish the experience. And even on those points, a reader will disagree with her on, they'll enjoy ransacking their memories for counter-arguments. Really, this is an excuse to think deeply about a favorite show for however long it takes you to read 300 pages, not much wrong with that.

Source: irresponsiblereader.com/2019/12/05/friends-a-cultural-history-by-jennifer-c-dunn-the-one-where-i-liked-2-3-of-a-book
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review 2019-08-29 04:37
Oy with the Poodles Already
Gilmore Girls: A Cultural History - Rachel Davidson,Laura C. Stache

Of course that headline doesn't say anything about the book, I've just never had an excuse to use that line, and this is as close as I'm going to get.

I'm a huge fan of the show Gilmore Girls, and am a bigger fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino. So when I saw this title, I had to jump on it. A cultural history of the show? 200+ pages about the show in more than just a raving-fan mode? Sign me up! The authors are big fans of the show, it must be said, but they can be critical of it, which makes all the difference. This book is an examination of both the show's reflection of the culture around it as well as what impact it had on the culture—the medium of TV, the casual viewers, and the fans. For a show that depends so heavily on pop culture, the former is easy to demonstrate (it's more of a question of how to focus the examination and when to stop), but the latter is just as important.


In Part I of the book, the authors look at the various relationships depicted in the show—mothers and daughters; fathers/father-figures and children; romance (with mother/daughter relationships, this is obligatory for the show); and friendship. I thought they were spot-on when it came to mothers and fathers. The romantic relationships they concentrated, and the points they raised about them, were what anyone picking up the book expected (although there was a stronger anti-Logan/pro-Jess bias than one might expect)—I did like the way that Dean and Luke were paralleled, and didn't appreciate the way that Christopher and Logan were (mostly because I think they were right, and I had to lower my regard for Logan if he's Rory's Christopher-equivalent). I thought the looks at Lorelai/Sookie and Rory/Lane and what they said about female friendships was just fantastic.


In Part II the authors switch to themes addressed in the show—feminism, class, pop culture and small-town life. I'll talk more about the chapter on feminism in a moment, but I thought it was exceptional. The Pop Culture chapter was fun and insightful. I appreciated the Class/Wealth examination, but thought they could've done more with it. This is part of the book that you probably can't find much of in discussions about the show—you can't swing a LOLcat* online without finding someone talking about Luke and Lorelai or Dean and Rory, but thoughtful takes on the greater cultural themes are rarer (not impossible to find, but harder.) The book doesn't shine as brightly as it could in this Part, but it handles the subjects deftly.


* I feel like I should apologize to Babette for using this expression.


The chapter examining the show's depiction of feminism features an extended look at Episode 1.14, "That Damn Donna Reed." This is at the same time the best and worst part of the book. Let me explain: the authors examine this episode and the main storylines in detail and while reflecting about what those stories say about the feminism of Gilmore Girls and the contemporary American culture (and our contemporary culture). I was entertained and satisfied with the book, but when they hit this high point*—and didn't accomplish anything like it in following chapters—I was disappointed. If we'd gotten that kind of examination of popular culture and class as shown in particular episodes, I'd have probably rated this book higher. I may have rated it higher if that chapter didn't have the 1.14 section, too—it just made everything else seem a little more shallow.


* I'm not saying I agreed with all of the analysis, but I appreciated what they did.


Chapter 8, "Small-Town Livin'," is—like most of this book—a look at the depiction of something and a celebration of it. In this case, it's Stars Hollow as an ideal small town. We're shown many examples of the peculiarities of Stars Hollow (taken in every sense of the word)—notably some of the characters, the way the community acts as a large family, how it supports (and doesn't support) each member, and so on. Then the authors talk about how it represents something in our contemporary culture that many, many feel is missing from our communities and how we yearn for it. I don't know what it was about this chapter precisely that struck me the way it did—but I didn't expect it, and the sentiments expressed really resonated with me. Perhaps it's because the rest of the book focuses (as it should) on Lorelai, Rory, Richard, Emily, Luke, etc., and it's only here that we focus on everyone else that made this show delightful.


My main complaint is that the authors depend on the same handful of examples too often. Luke did X, or Emily said Y are each trotted out to support 5 or 6 (or a dozen) points rather than finding 5 or 6 (or a dozen) other examples to show the same kind of thing. Luke didn't just act in a certain manner one time in one episode to cite repeatedly, he does repeated things along certain lines that could be used in a variety of contexts. I don't want to get bogged down in the details on this, so I'm keeping it vague, but it often felt like I could sing along with Stache and Davidson when they started to illustrate a point with one of the frequently used points. I can understand that it's easier to keep going back to the same well so that they don't have to explain the citations as much each time, but it got a bit tired.


There's an appendix (of sorts) wrapping up this book that is worth the purchase price—"The Episodes: An Opinionated Compendium." The compendium lists every episode, with a one-paragraph synopses (some are short, some aren't) and a Best Line (except for in Season 7, which almost doesn't count for the authors as a real season—like the mythical second and third Matrix movies, the fourth Indiana Jones, or third X-Men). I don't recommend reading that straight through, you'll burn out—but it's a great way to revisit the episodes and refresh your memory. I don't know the page count on this section, but it's not inconsequential—it's 27% of my eARC. Any fan will appreciate this part, even if they're unimpressed with the main text (and I doubt many fans will be unimpressed with anything in these pages).


This is a fun read, a thought-provoking read, and a comfort-read. It's like spending a couple of hours talking with some pretty intelligent friends about a TV show you all really like. It's impossible to watch the show without thinking about it in the terms the authors choose to focus on—relationships, feminism, wealth, community, family—but most fans probably haven't focused on it to the extent this volume does. I wanted more, but not much more. Not only is this a good book and a good way to examine a beloved show, it's a great introduction to this series of books. I know I'll be picking up more of them.


Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Rowman & Littlefield via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this opportunity, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Source: irresponsiblereader.com/2019/08/28/gilmore-girls-a-cultural-history-by-lara-c-stache-and-rachel-davidson-oy-with-the-poodles-already
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review 2019-01-27 15:25
A valuable history of "the world's oldest colony"
Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History - Arturo Morales Carrión

For most Americans today, Puerto Rico is an afterthought, a remnant of a strategic vision of which they are reminded only when disaster causes it to flare up momentarily onto their collective consciousness. Yet for the Puerto Ricans themselves, this is a disappointingly familiar reflection of their historical experience of the last five centuries. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Arturo Morales Carrión's masterful survey of the island's long and troubled history. Written in collaboration with four area specialists who contribute chapters on the Spanish colonial era and Puerto Rican culture, it conveys the long experience of domination by outside powers and the efforts by Puerto Ricans to exert some degree of control over their own destinies. Though nearly four decades old it still rewards reading thanks to the excellent overview it provides of Puerto Rico's development and relationship with the outside powers that controlled it, and is strongly recommended for anyone seeking to better understand this unjustly overlooked part of our nation.

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review 2018-10-20 14:21
Mushrooms by Nicholas P. Money
Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History - Nicholas P. Money

TITLE:  Mushrooms:  A Natural and Cutural History


AUTHOR:  Nicholas P. Money




FORMAT:  Hardcover


ISBN-13:  9781780237435



"Mushrooms hold a peculiar place in our culture: we love them and despise them, fear them and misunderstand them. They can be downright delicious or deadly poisonous, cute as buttons or utterly grotesque. These strange organisms hold great symbolism in our myths and legends. In this book, Nicholas P. Money tells the utterly fascinating story of mushrooms and the ways we have interacted with these fungi throughout history. Whether they have populated the landscapes of fairytales, lent splendid umami to our dishes, or steered us into deep hallucinations, mushrooms have affected humanity from the earliest beginnings of our species.  
As Money explains, mushrooms are not self-contained organisms like animals and plants. Rather, they are the fruiting bodies of large—sometimes extremely large—colonies of mycelial threads that spread underground and permeate rotting vegetation. Because these colonies decompose organic matter, they are of extraordinary ecological value and have a huge effect on the health of the environment. From sustaining plant growth and spinning the carbon cycle to causing hay fever and affecting the weather, mushrooms affect just about everything we do. Money tells the stories of the eccentric pioneers of mycology, delights in culinary powerhouses like porcini and morels, and considers the value of medicinal mushrooms. This book takes us on a tour of the cultural and scientific importance of mushrooms, from the enchanted forests of folklore to the role of these fungi in sustaining life on earth."


Mushrooms:  A Natural and Culturla History provides a lovely introduction to the world of mushrooms.  This book is about mushrooms in particular, not fungi in general.  This book is also not a field guide.  Each chapter covers a muchroom theme; from mushroom superstition, science, function, evolution, experts, parasites, growing, cooking, poisons, hallucinogens, and mushroom conservation etc.  The science is meticulous but not overwhelming and the anecdotes are relevant to the topic.   The book includes numerous colour photographs and other illustrations.  This was an enjoyable and interesting book about the various aspects of mushrooms.


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review 2018-06-25 11:45
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History - Cynthia Barnett

Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.  This is a history, not a science, text.  But as a history of rain, it's 100% more interesting than a book on rain would generally sound.  Filled with anecdotes that bring the history to life, and raise it a notch above a dry (ha!) academic narrative, once I got past the parts of history I always find slow (ie, any part we have to speculate about) I found it hard to put the book down.


The author tries tackle the subject globally, but generally, it's US-centric (which, if I remember right, she disclaims at the start).  There's a certain amount of doom and gloom when she gets to present day human vs. rain (spoiler: rain always wins), but I was incredibly please and very inspired by the stories she told about how certain cities are learning from their mistakes.  In a global culture that is so, I'm sorry, collectively stupid about climate change, it often feels like we're being beat about the head with it; we haven't yet figured out that, just as this tactic doesn't work on children, it doesn't work on humanity in general.  But a story about people learning from the past and taking steps to remediate the problems - that's what, in my opinion - is going to inspire the long-term change we so desperately need.


She ends the book with the most telling irony - her trip the the rainiest place on the planet, Mawsynram, where she experiences 5 cloud free, sunny days, while back home in Florida her family lives through the rainiest weather in the state's recorded history.


A pleasant, informative and well-written read.

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