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review 2018-12-27 01:50
Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder - Caroline Fraser

This is an impressive work: not only a detailed biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, but a history of a century of American life. The level of research that went into it is nothing short of incredible; Fraser seems to have tracked down every public record throughout several states related to the Ingalls and Wilder families and those around them, as well as obscure connections like a mocking portrayal of Rose (under a different name) in an acquaintance’s novel. The level of detail and the length (515 pages of text, plus extensive endnotes) make this a hefty read, on the dense side for a general audience but not so dense as to restrict its audience to academic readers.

It’s not only slow going because of the detail; the subject matter is also heavy. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in poverty for most of her life, and Rose, though often financially successful, was an unstable and difficult person. Both, especially later in life, became staunch conservatives – Rose, in particular, seems to be the prototype of a Trump supporter – and they crafted the Little House books into a parable of a kind of self-reliance that the real-life Ingalls family never actually attained.

I was aware before reading this book that the Little House books omit darker aspects of the real Laura’s childhood, such as the death of her baby brother. But the myth-making reached beyond the personal to a whole period of American history. Americans are sold the myth of the self-reliant frontier famers, including in Wilder’s own books, although that vision of triumph is tempered by the knowledge that it was achieved at the expense of the native population. But in the reality Fraser carefully documents here, it wasn’t really a triumph even for the white settlers. Most the Great Plains were not in fact suited for small-scale farming, consisting of land not productive enough to sustain the level of intensive agriculture needed to support family farms. Rather than supporting the family through the farm alone, Charles Ingalls worked a variety of jobs throughout his life – and Laura started working herself at the age of nine. Droughts and plagues of locusts led to starvation; intensive farming removed fragile topsoil and caused the Dust Bowl, which was both a humanitarian disaster and one of the largest man-made ecological disasters in world history. The Ingalls family failed at several homesteads, lived with some unsavory characters in between farms, and, like many others, accepted government relief to eat. Laura and Almanzo Wilder eventually achieved financial security – though not through their farm, but rather, through work in town, Laura’s writing, the gift of a house by Almanzo’s parents, and Rose’s assistance – but Laura’s sisters remained impoverished.

So it’s not the most cheerful of biographies, but it’s an engaging and informative one. Fraser deserves to be commended for her thoroughness and her detachment – though I imagine an author generally has to admire a historical figure in order to spend years researching and writing about her, Fraser makes no bones about the darker aspects of Laura’s and Rose’s personalities and viewpoints. My sense throughout was of a careful scholar presenting the facts, along with their context, rather than arguing for one perspective or another. While reading this book takes some commitment, it should be worthwhile not only to fans of the Little House books, but to those interested in the history of the American West in general.

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text 2018-12-13 07:10
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review 2018-12-10 19:34
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

I enjoyed this book. It’s quick, relatively light compared to a lot of my reading, and shows a lot of compassion towards a wide variety of characters. I don’t think it digs quite deep enough to be literary fiction, though it’s certainly more intelligently written than a lot of the “suburban drama and social issues” books out there.

 

This book focuses on the drama growing out of the enmeshment of two families. The Richardsons are prominent citizens in their planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who rent a home to struggling artist Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl. The Richardsons have four teenagers of their own, all of whom are drawn to Mia or Pearl or both. But Elena Richardson, the mother, starts digging into Mia’s past when a controversial adoption case divides the town and the two women are on opposing sides. All of this leads to a conflagration, as we learn in the book’s first sentence.

 

What I most enjoyed about this book was its empathy and understanding toward its characters. Rather than painting people in black and white and dismissing some of them as just being lousy, it reaches out to turn everyone’s viewpoint into a sympathetic one. The omniscient narrator dips into the heads of even minor characters, which works well, drawing a full picture of events that allows readers a greater understanding than any individual character possesses. And the level of empathy is particularly noticeable around the adoption case, where the author shows an understanding of both the poor, desperate immigrant mother who abandoned her baby in a dark moment and the loving couple that want to adopt her despite their contented ignorance about her birth culture.

 

And yet, there’s still a certain remove from the characters that left me frustrated. If only the book had dug one layer deeper with the protagonists, I think this would have been a great novel. Perhaps it’s the amount of narrative summary (though there’s still a lot of scenes and dialogue) or the omniscient narrator (though that works well in many books) or the cramming of six or so “main” characters along with many more of lesser importance into a novel of average length rather than focusing on one or two protagonists (though again, this has been done successfully).

 

Or maybe it’s that certain moments don’t ring true.

The younger teens’ successful revenge on the bullying orchestra teacher reads like pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Trip and Pearl’s relationship doesn’t quite ring true, and for that matter her friendship with Moody didn’t quite make sense to me either, probably because we don’t really see them together after their first meeting. Elena’s pursuit of Mia’s past also seems a bit over-the-top: Elena is initially presented as a principled woman, though somewhat blinded by her privilege, and her lack of qualms about her methods (as well as the fact that it was sparked simply by Mia’s telling Bebe about her daughter’s whereabouts – which weren’t exactly a secret) didn’t seem quite believable. And of course there’s the absurdity of the wealthy New York couple whose choice of a surrogate is a struggling college student picked up on the subway simply because she resembles the wife: I realize surrogacy wasn’t common in 1981, but common sense could still have told them that a girl who has never given birth before and is backed into a financial corner might have a change of heart about giving up her baby. And finally, the photographs Mia leaves behind, speaking on a deep level to each of the Richardsons, seemed to me a cliché but not very believable gesture.

(spoiler show)

 

At any rate, I enjoyed my time with this, though it didn’t rock my world. I would consider reading more from this author.

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review 2018-12-10 04:31
There There by Tommy Orange
There There - Tommy Orange

Books about communities seldom portrayed in media have an undeniable cultural value aside from their literary value. This book, about a large number of Native American characters living in contemporary Oakland, California, clearly has a lot of cultural value for readers whose vague notions of Native Americans encompassed no more than reservations, feather headdresses and a sense that these folks aren’t really around anymore. I suspect the book will also be valuable to a lot of Native American readers, particularly in its portrayal of native characters struggling with issues of identity: what does it mean to be native if you don’t know much about your heritage, if you’re mixed race, if you learn powwow dancing by watching videos on YouTube?

That said, I am not in either of these groups, and on a literary level I was disappointed. Like a lot of first novels by MFAs, this book bites off more than it can chew, experimenting with literary techniques but distancing the reader from the characters. It follows 12 point-of-view characters – eight men, three women and a boy – in a novel that due to short chapters is even shorter than its 290 pages would have you believe; and each POV character comes with their own supporting cast of friends and family. Seven of these characters have chapters told in the first person, despite the fact that every character’s voice sounds alike. (They always do, and yet first-time novelists persist in doing this.) One obnoxious 17-page chapter is even told in the second person. (“You went back every Tuesday for the next year. Keeping time wasn’t hard for you. The hard part was singing. You’d never been a talker. You’d certainly never sung before. Not even alone. But Bobby made you do it.”)

Unfortunately, so little time with each person means that everyone is a bit-part character. We barely get to know any of them as people, and their surroundings feel oddly blank as well, with descriptions of place mostly limited to Oakland street names. It’s definitely urban grit lit: the emotional arc of one chapter is traced through the character’s constipation and ultimate pants-pooping, while another character pulls spider legs out of a bump in his leg . . . and although we spend too little time with any individual to see much more than a snapshot of their lives and histories leading up to a powwow, it’s clear from the beginning that it will culminate in a mass shooting. When it comes, we don’t even learn the fates of all the characters before the book ends.

The book is crammed full of issues – alcoholism, missing parents, urban violence, domestic violence, interracial adoption, more alcoholism – which is fine, but at the point that the author addresses the reader directly about Native American history in both a prologue and an interlude, and a character in the middle of fleeing her abusive husband gets a random lecture from her friend about the issue of native women going missing in large numbers, I had the image of the author with a bullhorn going, “Do I have your attention? Excellent! Let me tell you ALL THE THINGS!”

That said, I do think author shows a lot of promise. The characterization is decent given the fact that the book barely gives any of the characters room to breathe. The writing is fine – it’s not always as staccato as the brief excerpt above, though still too distinctive to plausibly attribute to a large number of characters of different ages and backgrounds. Many first-time authors attempt and then get past the multiple-narrators thing, and Orange’s second book will probably be much less frantic in its issue-inclusion just because he packed so much into this one. I will be curious to learn more about the next book, but on its literary merits I wouldn’t recommend this one.

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review 2018-11-05 05:50
Still a classic, but showing its age
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) - James M. McPherson

I first read James McPherson's classic history of the Civil War era when I was in high school. At the time I had a pretty callow understanding of history; because of this, while I took a lot from McPherson's book, many of his arguments and details went largely unappreciated. In the years that followed his book remained on my shelf as a valued resource that I drew from, even as I moved on to more focused studies about the period. Recently, however, a friend's request brought me back to the book for my first cover-to-cover reading of it in decades. This proved an extremely interesting experience, for several reasons.

 

Foremost among them was the opportunity to learn the things I had missed the first time around. I credit this to my maturity, as I have a far greater range of interests than my 17-year-old self ever did. This helped give me a deeper appreciation for McPherson's book, as I saw the balance and nuance he displayed on the numerous topics he addressed.  I also found myself admiring even more so the fluidity of McPherson's presentation of the era and his ability to range from topic to topic in a way that never weakened my engagement with the text.

 

Yet for all of the book's strengths and my increased admiration for them, I also saw flaws that I missed the first time through. Foremost among them is McPherson's scope, for as brilliantly as he covers the lead up to the Civil War and the war itself, this remains his predominant focus. Other subjects relevant to the era, such as cultural developments, are ignored so long as they are irrelevant to his focus on the war and the events leading up to it, making his book less comprehensive than some of the others in the series. Another is the increasingly dated nature of the text. Unlike Robert Middlekauf with his volume on the Revolutionary era, McPherson has stated before that he has little interest in updating his work. Though his decision is understandable in some respects, the absence of the considerable amount of Civil War historiography that has been published over the past three decades erodes its value and will continue to do so as time went along.

 

Because of this, I finished McPherson's book with an appreciation both renewed and more tempered than before. While it remains the single best book on its subject, it is one that is showing its age. I expect that I will turn to it again in the years to come, but when I do it will be an awareness that it no longer can serve as the solitary go-to source for understanding this pivotal era of American history.

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