I coordinated my reading of Metropolis with listening to the episodes of The Tides of History about the rise of civilization and Uruk, the first city in Mesopotamia. Only the first chapter of Metropolis is about Uruk, but the podcast gave me structure of: what does civilization mean? What makes a city possible? Spoiler: a certain degree of wealth; often, religion is involved; and some sort of organization to coordinate activities.
Metropolis grazes over 6500 years of human history, from the founding of Uruk to the modern day – Covid-19 even makes its way into the introduction. Each era of human history is looked at through the focus of the city and what the city meant to that era of history. For example, for the Roman era, the book focuses on bathhouses, because they’re a stand-in for the engineering feats that were needed to get the plumbing in place, but they also signify how Roman culture evolved from the non-bathhouse-having hard-nosed citizens of the early republic to the more decadent subjects of the late empire.
The cities profiled are all over the world, too. While history tends to focus on European cities – and there’s a lot of Europe in here – Metropolis is doing its best to bring in cities from around the world: Baghdad, Malacca, Tenochtitlan, and Lagos to name a few. (It gets bonus points for making you really detest the combination of ignorance and superiority complex of the conquistadors.)
I’m personally a fan of cities. I like their energy and creativity and the way that they bring people together and make things happen in a way that being out in the country, or even in suburbia just doesn’t. Metropolis really captured that for me; I would definitely recommend it.
Let me tell you that so many people I know loved The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It’s probably because I work in a library and know so many librarians. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, I enjoyed reading about the fire that happened at the main branch in 1986 (the same day as Chernobyl, so while it should have made the evening news, it didn’t), and Orlean tells her intertwining stories well.
If you are a book person, read The Library Book.
The Stranger in the Woods is the book-length tale started in the GQ article titled “The Strange & Curious Case of the Last True Hermit“, which I would recommend you read if you haven’t already. It’s about a man who makes the choice to live in a secluded clump of woods in a tent in Central Maine. For over twenty years.
I find this story fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, the practical side of me is honestly curious about how you survive Maine winters in a tent. It’s explained in the book but I still keep thinking “but could that really work? Really?” Two, there is an appeal to leaving the world behind, to get rid of sources of stress, to have the time to meditate and the ability to read so much of the time. Three, what you must have to go through to re-enter the world is incredible to think about. It’s probably like traveling to a whole new place and having to learn how to fit in again. Things are the same as before you left, but also completely different.
The Stranger in the Woods is an easy read and entertaining. Which seems like an odd and callous thing to say about a real, live person who is clearly going through some real, live stuff. Even if he did just decide to go, he was discovered and arrested and pulled back into the world not by his choice. While the book is easy and entertaining, I’m not sure it should be? Like, shouldn’t I feel his pain and suffering along with him as he slowly reacclimatizes to being around people?
I don’t know. Would I recommend it? Yes, as a starting place and a story. But no if you’re looking for a psychological profile that wants you to ask difficult questions.
I am always up for a good book about either Paris or walking as a form of meditation. Flaneuse is a combination of the two. It’s part memoir, part exploration of other women walking around in art (literature, music, movies) in many cities – not just Paris – and taking the time to absorb the world around them.
Flaneuse was good, and reminded me that time is often more valuable than money, happiness-wise. Recommended.
How to Read Novels Like a Professor gives you the tools to better analyze a novel: things like voice and chapter structure and ideas and beginnings and endings. But the thesis of the book is something near and dear to my heart: that you, as a reader, when you engage with a book, you make it better. These are the tools that Foster is giving you to better, more wholly engage with a work of fiction.
This is obviously near and dear to my heart – I write these reviews because they make me a better reader. What was that book about? Do I agree with it? Did I like the characters, and does that matter? Was the language any good? Reflecting on those things and more means I engage with the books I read (even the non-fiction) more deeply and enjoy reading even more than I already do. Caring about things like structure and sentences makes a difference. Knowing how to analyze a story makes a difference.
Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.
Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.
There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.
This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.
Sharp is a well-researched overview of a series of ten public intellectuals, all women, what they wrote, how other people reacted to it, and how they handled those reactions. What kind of personas did they get? Which of their pieces defined their public personas? How did they feel about that? Why?
The well-researched aspect of the book was the part that most resonated with me. I came away wanting to read all the books and articles by Kael, Didion, Parker, even Sontag, who I developed a disdain for in the 1990s for no particular reason. I want to add every entry in Sharp‘s bibliography to my own already too-long to read list. I am envious of Michelle Dean for having the time and purpose to have already done so.
Also, Nora Ephron, I’m sorry. I knew your persona as the person who wrote Meg Ryan movies. The same Meg Ryan movies that I got sick of in the 80s and 90s. I still don’t understand why/how Meg Ryan’s and Tom Hank’s characters fell in love without really meeting through the whole of Sleepless in Seattle. And Billy Crystal’s schtick was fine the first time I saw When Harry Met Sally, but it was grating upon re-watch. Eventually, the movies just felt like Meg Ryan being Meg Ryan – unfair to her and you, I can see now – and not like anything special or interesting. (And yes, I believe men and women can be friends without one wanting to sleep with the other.) I had no idea you had a whole pre-movie body of work. It’s time to go read that.
And maybe this is where I say something about how women get discounted in intellectual life, and where I cite a relevant quote from How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Instead I will say that I am glad Michelle Dean is taking these women seriously and inspiring other people to also take them seriously.
Better Living Through Criticism isn’t so much about how to think as it is about why to think. It’s about doing more than just reacting to what’s in front of you; consider it, put it in its context, know who made it and possibly tease out why it was made.
One of the mistakes we as a people make is to think that culture is somehow universal, in the same way that, say, mathematics is. It’s not. My reaction to a book I’ve read is necessarily personal. It’s going to be a reaction to what I’ve read in the past and who I am as a person. But I can take a step back and ask things like “what is the author trying to do here?” and “does this say something larger about society?” or whichever questions seem appropriate.
I will confess that I enjoy reading more and am a better reader because I write these short reviews. I also occasionally participate in NaNoWriMo, not because I think the world needs to hear my stories (I have never shown one to anyone), but because the more I try to write them, the better a reader I become. Thinking helps.
Which is the point of the book: thinking helps in both reading and life. It helps you (me) be a happier, less stressed person. I’m going to keep doing it.
(The colors on the cover are not nearly that saturated. My image capturing process seems to need some help.)
Girls and Sex is largely about how high school and college aged girls form romantic and sexual relationships. What do girls get out of it? How about boys?* Should you, the parent, be clutching your pearls? Or worried?
Maybe? It explores how teenagers express their feelings, even if they don’t understand those feelings. It seems, to me anyway, that teenagers have a lot of ideas about what couples (or people who like each other) *should* do. Or maybe what they want to do without a lot of thought about the ramification of those actions.
My personal take as a parent is that my daughter should a) understand what she wants and be comfortable saying no, b) get the hell out if saying no doesn’t work, c) think, as much as she can, before she acts. Consent is hard, and drinking heavily isn’t responsible for a lot of reasons, but, in this case, consent gets complicated fast when one or the both of you isn’t making good decisions.
The book does end on a hopeful note, because it does talk about the fact that boys are often just as confused about girls about relationships. They’re given a different template of how to act, and that can cause its own problems.
Recommended if you have a teenaged child.
* Girls and Sex does have a chapter about same-sex romantic relationships and the further challenges of acceptance around those relationships as well. I don’t want to ignore that. But a lot of “how does he/she feel about me?” and “should I act on my feelings?” holds true no matter your partner’s gender.
What’s it about?
Viktor Frankl spent World War II in a concentration camp. He was a therapist before he was imprisoned, and he used his time in the camps to better understand himself and humanity. It’s not a long overview of his time in the camps – maybe 100 pages? – but it’s powerful stuff. The upshot is that the people whose lives had meaning, who had something to live for, those people were the ones who survived. If you believed that you were going to be free by Christmas and then Christmas came and went, well, it was highly likely that you were going to die shortly thereafter. There’s a short appendix talking about his therapeutic philosophy – that everyone who believes their life has a purpose is happier and healthier. So why are you here?
Why should you read it?
The week I read this was a hard one. I was having a small bout of depression; my husband was out of town, so I was single-parenting; and I got insomnia. Reading Man’s Search for Meaning helped, a lot. It set my brain thinking about why I do what I do. I won’t go into detail (this blog post isn’t a therapy session!), but it gave me the headspace and strength to make it through. And I needed that. I know this book has helped other people figure out what they want to do with their lives. But for me it was simpler, more a confirmation that I’m ok with where I am. Sometimes, that’s all you need.