Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Cape Doctor by E. J. Levy

I read this novel in one day.

It was a windy, gloomy day. But that is not why I read it in one day. I read it in one day because I did not want to stop reading. 

I loved the narrative voice, the feeling of being transported back several centuries, the knowing wink to the style of the early 19th c in lines like "No one who had ever seen Margaret Brackley in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine (or so Jane Austen might have written of her..."

I was interested in the questions the narrator struggled with, about choice and chance, gender identity, the gap between male and female autonomy and self-determination.

Which of us is undisguised, after all? Which of us reveals himself truly to the world. ~from The Cape Doctor by E. J. Levy


The Cape Doctor is based on the true story of a woman who posed as a man to gain an education and become the first female doctor. She performed the first recorded, successful Cesarean operation.
portrait of Dr. James Barry, inspiration for The Cape Doctor's protagonist

Levy's character is inspired by the historical Barry, but Levy gives her own spin to the story, concentrating on the feminist issues. Her Dr. Perry lives as a man, but identifies as female. (Another character is hermaphrodite, which some believe Barry was, while others believe Barry was transsexual. Those controversies do not affect my reading of this novel, as this is historical fiction inspired by true events, and not a biography.) 

Under Levy's hands, the imagined character Margaret Brackley becomes Dr. Jonathan Mirandus Perry. She tells her story of transformation from a subservient and invisible female to an authoritative and competent professional man of society.

In dire poverty, Margaret's mother sends her to beg aid from her uncle. There, she meets General Mirandus, who takes an interest in her brilliant mind. After her uncle's death, the general sends her to be educated in Edinburgh's esteemed medical school with plans for her to become his personal physician in Caracas.

Margaret cuts her hair and binds her breasts and dons a boy's clothing. She learns to lower her voice, to change her actions and her attitude, to mimic. She learns how to masquerade, how to pass.

As Dr. Perry, she becomes a successful army doctor in Cape Town, with at least one young lady falling in love with her.

When her true sex is discovered, she has a love affair and must chose between love and her career, and more importantly, "the right to think and speak and move as I chose, not as others bade me. To experience life on my own terms."

I thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, another brilliant woman who was also against marriage, whose love affairs were scandalous.

As a first-person narrative in the style of the early 19th c, Margaret/Perry speaks to issues of identity and freedom, often in pithy epigrams. And most are quite timeless. Including, "You can judge a culture by its medicine, by how it teats is most vulnerable--the ill." 

It is interesting to learn that the Cape Doctor is the name for a strong wind that today blows away the pollution over Cape Town and provides waves for perfect surfing, but which was believed to also blow away bad spirits, healing the town. And that fair weather comes after the blow. 

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

The Cape Doctor
by E. J. Levy
Little, Brown and Company
Pub Date  June 15, 2021
ISBN: 9780316536585
hardcover $28.00 (USD)

from the publisher

A "gorgeous, thoughtful, heartbreaking" historical novel, The Cape Doctor is the story of one man’s journey from penniless Irish girl to one of most celebrated and accomplished figures of his time (Lauren Fox, New York Times bestselling author of Send for Me).
Beginning in Cork, Ireland, the novel recounts Perry’s journey from daughter to son in order to enter medical school and provide for family, but Perry soon embraced the new-found freedom of living life as a man. From brilliant medical student in Edinburgh and London to eligible bachelor and quick-tempered physician in Cape Town, Dr. Perry thrived. When he befriended the aristocratic Cape Governor, the doctor rose to the pinnacle of society, before the two were publicly accused of a homosexual affair that scandalized the colonies and nearly cost them their lives.
E. J. Levy’s enthralling novel, inspired by the life of Dr. James Miranda Barry, brings this captivating character vividly alive.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch is the first biography I have read of Poe. I was totally enthralled. Tresch's approach gives us a man of technological and scientific insight, an expert craftsman with the pen, an original thinker, and a relentless worker. And yet, everything was against Poe, he struggled to provide basic needs, and his dreams were always beyond reach. 
Edgar Allan Poe portrait

It is one of the saddest biographies I have ever read. A genius with everything against him, a man who achieved great heights and died with nothing. Had he been born in a different time, would his fate have been happier?
My Grandfather's set of Poe

I first read Poe in my grandfather's 1926 paperback 101 Famous Poems in which I discovered The Raven, The Bells, and To Helen. Then, I discovered a complete set of Poe on gramp's shelves and borrowed the volumes so often, he told me to just keep them. This was almost 57 years ago! 

Like my own grandfather, Poe's father had abandoned his mother and with her death was an orphan. Like my grandfather, Poe was taken to be raised by a family without formal adoption. Like my grandfather, Poe was sent into the world without enough financial support to live on. Like Poe, my grandfather was an engineer, a writer, relentlessly working three jobs to support his family. Unlike my grandfather, Poe had been raised by a wealthy family and had expectations of being supported to continue that lifestyle. Plus, he had inherited the family problem of alcoholism.

Poe embraced two interests: the advancement of a distinct American literature that could rival Europe's, and an interest in science and technology. His classical education, training at West Point, deep reading, and relentless pursuit of financial security and fame was derailed by his inability to handle alcohol, which was almost impossible to avoid in society or business. 

He took on his aunt and cousin as family, his love for both deep and sincere. They starved with him and followed him from home to home. He married his child bride cousin, who died of tuberculosis, perhaps the inspiration for his poem Annabel Lee.

Poe lived in an age when science and pseudoscience and faith clashed. He reacted to the new scientific ideas that precluded purpose and meaning to existence.

Tresch begins and ends with Poe's lecture Eureka! which presented radical ideas that later were seen as foreshadowing current theories accepted in the scientific community. He neither envisioned a universe controlled by a deity, or abandoned by a deity, or once created remained unchanged. His universe was dynamic and evolving. He saw that science had its limits in understanding the human experience and place in the universe.

Poe lived during the rise of the magazine, and he relentlessly wrote articles of every kind, published in magazines such as Graham's Ladies and Gentleman's Magazine; forty years ago I bought an 1841 bound volume in a Maine antique shop which included numerous works by Poe, articles on cryptography and autography (analyzing signatures), The Colloquy of Monos and Una, and the poems Israfel and To Helen.

It was so interesting to read Tresch's comments on these articles and poems. The Colloquy, he comments, includes lines that foretold the future: "Meantime huge smoking cities arose, innumerable. Green leaves shrank before the hot breath of furnaces. The fair face of Nature was deformed as with the ravages of some loathsome disease.[...]now it appears that we had worked out our own destruction in the perversion of our taste, or rather in the blind neglect of its culture in the schools." He continues, "Taste along could have led us gently back to Beauty, to Nature, and to Life."

With my new insights into Poe, I really must return and reread his work. 

I received a free galley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

My Edgar Allan Poe quilt features a raven and his handwritten Annabel Lee manuscript printed on fabric.

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science
by John Tresch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pub Date June 15, 2021
ISBN: 9780374247850
hardcover $30.00 (USD)

from the publisher

An innovative biography of Edgar Allan Poe—highlighting his fascination and feuds with science.

Decade after decade, Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most popular American writers. He is beloved around the world for his pioneering detective fiction, tales of horror, and haunting, atmospheric verse. But what if there was another side to the man who wrote “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”?

In The Reason for the Darkness of the Night, John Tresch offers a bold new biography of a writer whose short, tortured life continues to fascinate. Shining a spotlight on an era when the lines separating entertainment, speculation, and scientific inquiry were blurred, Tresch reveals Poe’s obsession with science and lifelong ambition to advance and question human knowledge. Even as he composed dazzling works of fiction, he remained an avid and often combative commentator on new discoveries, publishing and hustling in literary scenes that also hosted the era’s most prominent scientists, semi-scientists, and pseudo-intellectual rogues. As one newspaper put it, “Mr. Poe is not merely a man of science—not merely a poet—not merely a man of letters. He is all combined; and perhaps he is something more.”

Taking us through his early training in mathematics and engineering at West Point and the tumultuous years that followed, Tresch shows that Poe lived, thought, and suffered surrounded by science—and that many of his most renowned and imaginative works can best be understood in its company. He cast doubt on perceived certainties even as he hungered for knowledge, and at the end of his life delivered a mind-bending lecture on the origins of the universe that would win the admiration of twentieth-century physicists. Pursuing extraordinary conjectures and a unique aesthetic vision, he remained a figure of explosive contradiction: he gleefully exposed the hoaxes of the era’s scientific fraudsters even as he perpetrated hoaxes himself.

Tracing Poe’s hard and brilliant journey, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night is an essential new portrait of a writer whose life is synonymous with mystery and imagination—and an entertaining, erudite tour of the world of American science just as it was beginning to come into its own.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America by Scott Borchert

It was a roiling and seething experiment, and even its participants could not agree on what it all meant. ~from Republic of Detours by Scott Borchert

During the Depression, President Roosevelt's New Deal relief programs paid millions of people to work. White collar workers were also starving, including writers, editors, newspapermen, and college professors. The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was created to employ tens of thousands of writers across America; it is credited for preventing suicide rates among writers. The program not only printed over a thousand publications, it boosted the careers of the 20th c most iconic writers.

The FWP conceived of a series of American Guides, filled with a broad range of information, including geography, politics, history, folklore, and ethnographic and cultural studies. They were the ultimate travel guides, providing tours and destinations that were often known only to local people. 

Author Scott Borchert's uncle had hundreds of the guides and he became curious to know who created them and why. "They carry a whiff of New Deal optimism," he writes, but they also managed to sidestep "those signature American habits of boosterism and aggressive national mythologizing." The Guides offer insight into how Americans saw themselves and their history.

Borchert uncovered how the massive program was rife with conflict and struggles. The state programs submitted articles to the D. C. editors. Conflicts arose. For instance, there was a backlash against the term Civil War by Southern states who wanted War Between the States. 

Readers learn about the life, careers, and politics of the administrators and writers. In the 1930s, socialism was embraced by progressives, and many of the Guide writers were progressives who wrote about labor and attacked racial and economic inequity. Eventually, the program came under attack as a communist vehicle.

Tour One introduces Henry Alsberg, friend of Emma Goldman, selected to run the WPA in Washington DC. His first mission was to "take 3.5 million people off relief and put them to work." The quality of the work was unimportant. And yet, the largest publishing houses later testified to the quality of the guides.

Tour Two considers how the program worked in Idaho under Vardis Fisher who completed and published the first Guide. Tour Three takes us to Chicago where writers Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Frank Yerby, and Richard Wright were hired.

Tour Four goes to Florida where anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston joined a Negro Unit to write The Florida Negro. Tour Five goes to New York City, the most dysfunctional unit. Richard Wright left the FWP in Chicago, where he became friends with Margaret Walker, for New York City where he meet Ralph Ellison.

Tour Six returns to DC, the WPA attacked by Rep. Martin Dies, Jr., who contended that the organization was a stronghold of communists intending to create a propaganda outlet.

This is a broad ranging history of an era, the program, and the people who ran and worked in it, and its legacy. The Guides legacy includes inspiring authors John Steinbeck and William Least Heat-Moon.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through Net Galley. My review is fair and unbiased.

Read an excerpt from Republic of Detours at 

Read some of the guides at

Read some of the manuscripts

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America
by Scott Borchert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pub Date June 15, 2021   
ISBN: 9780374298456
hardcover $30.00 (USD)

from the publisher
An immersive account of the New Deal project that created state-by-state guidebooks to America, in the midst of the Great Depression—and employed some of the biggest names in American letters

The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious—and utterly unprecedented. Take thousands of broke writers and put them to work charting a country on the brink of social and economic collapse, with the aim of producing a rich and beguiling series of guidebooks to the forty-eight states. There would be hundreds of other publications dedicated to cities, regions, and towns, plus voluminous collections of folklore, ex-slave narratives, and even recipes, all of varying quality, each revealing distinct sensibilities.

All this fell within the singular purview of the Federal Writers’ Project—a division of the Works Progress Administration founded to employ jobless writers, from bestselling novelists and acclaimed poets to the more dubiously qualified. 
It was a predictably eclectic organization, directed by an equally eccentric man, Henry Alsberg—a disheveled Manhattanite and “philosophical anarchist” who was prone to fits of melancholy as well as bursts of inspiration. Under Alsberg’s direction, the FWP took up the lofty goal of rediscovering America, and soon found itself embroiled in the day’s most heated arguments regarding literary representation, radical politics, and racial inclusion—forcing it to reckon with the promises and failures of both the New Deal and the American experiment itself.

Scott Borchert’s Republic of Detours tells the story of this raucous and remarkable undertaking by delving into the stories of several key figures and tracing the FWP from its optimistic early days to its dismemberment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Along with Alsberg and a cast of New Dealers, we meet Vardis Fisher, the cantankerous Western novelist whose presence on the project proved to be a blessing and a curse; Nelson Algren, broke and smarting from the failure of his first novel, whose job saved him from a potentially grim fate; Zora Neale Hurston, the most published Black woman in the country, whose talents were sought by the FWP’s formally segregated Florida office; and Richard Wright, who arrived in the chaotic New York City office on an upward career trajectory, courtesy of the WPA. Meanwhile, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, John Cheever, and many other future literary stars found sustenance when they needed it.

By way of these and a multitude of other stories, Borchert illuminates an essentially noble enterprise that sought to create a broad, inclusive, and collective self-portrait of America at a time when the nation’s very identity and future were thrown into question. As the United States enters a new era of economic distress, political strife, and culture-industry turmoil, this book’s lessons are urgent and strong.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Legends of the North Cascades by Jonathan Evison


Trauma destroys the lives of those who have lived through devastating events but it also impacts the lives of the people around the trauma victim. 

Legends of the North Cascades tells the story of two beings whose trauma leads them to isolate from society, each with a child they determine to protect. But isolating from society does not bring healing, and their post traumatic disorder worsens.

Dave hoped for a football scholarship but it eluded him; with few choices he enlisted in the Marines. He knew that on the field he was a determined, hard worker, a quick thinker whose insight made up for his slender size. He loved his country and he wanted to travel and to make a difference.

But after three tours in Iraq, Dave had lost his illusions. He returned home psychologically damaged to struggle on his own. His marriage floundered. They thought a child could change things, and during pregnancy they did join in expectation and joy. With Bella's birth, their problems worsened.

When his wife suddenly dies, Dave decides to take Bella to live in the North Cascades. He owed money and was going to lose the house. It was time to give up fitting into 'normal.' He and Bella would live off the land where they would be safe from the human world.

At first, Bella was happy and Dave was well organized and directed. Bella resisted attempts to bring her back into town. But over time, Dave's mental health deteriorated and Bella grapples with estrangement and loneliness.

Thousands of years before Dave and Bella came to the North Cascades, S'tka refused to join her clan when they migrate into the unknown lands beyond the mountains. As a female, she had suffered under male power, allowed to starve while pregnant and raped. She gives birth to N'ka and does everything she could to protect him. But her son grew up and pushed to find others, to expand his world. His mother insisted that others brought pain and put their lives at risk.

Jonathan Evison uses the two timelines to illustrate the universality of human experience, the worst and the best of society, and the damage we inflict on others. 

The children show great bravery and openness to finding the good in the world. 

Evison has written,

I believe in the power of stories to transform. I still think the novel is the greatest empathic window ever devised by humankind, and I think it would be a better world if everybody read at least one novel per week. Way better than if they watched Mad Men. Or played Farmville. I have one theme: reinvention. I believe people can change. I believe most people want to. I believe in forgiveness, forbearance, generosity, and humor in the face adversity. (

Legends of the North Cascade offers unforgettable characters and a transformative story that will wring your heart and mend it again.

I received an advanced reading copy from the publisher. My review is fair and unbiased.

Legends of the North Cascades
by Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books
Pub Date  June 8, 2021 
ISBN: 9781643750101
hardcover 26.95 (USD)

from the publisher

Dave Cartwright used to be good at a lot of things: good with his hands, good at solving problems, good at staying calm in a crisis. But on the heels of his third tour in Iraq, the fabric of Dave’s life has begun to unravel. Gripped by PTSD, he finds himself losing his home, his wife, his direction. Most days, his love for his seven-year-old daughter, Bella, is the only thing keeping him going. When tragedy strikes, Dave makes a dramatic decision: the two of them will flee their damaged lives, heading off the grid to live in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.

As they carve out a home in a cave in that harsh, breathtaking landscape, echoes of its past begin to reach them. Bella retreats into herself, absorbed by visions of a mother and son who lived in the cave thousands of years earlier, at the end of the last ice age. Back in town, Dave and Bella themselves are rapidly becoming the stuff of legend—to all but those who would force them to return home. 

As winter sweeps toward the North Cascades, past and present intertwine into a timeless odyssey. Poignant and profound, Legends of the North Cascades brings Jonathan Evison’s trademark vibrant, honest voice to bear on an expansive story that is at once a meditation on the perils of isolation and an exploration of the ways that connection can save us.

"A beautifully rendered and cinematic portrait of a place and its evolution through time . . . A story of survival and the love and devotion between parent and child.”—Jill McCorkle, author of Hieroglyphics 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Among the Beautiful Beasts by Lori McMullen

Marjory Stoneman Douglas loved her new home in Florida and her job writing for her father's newspaper. She arrived in 1915, a crucial time when developers were dredging up the sea bottom to create coastal retreats, destroying the ecosystem of the unique habitat known as the Everglades.

Marjory's adored mother was mentally ill, causing her father to leave them when she was a girl. Her mother in an asylum, Marjory was cared for by grandparents and an aunt who supported her college education. She found work writing for a newspaper. 

Marjory considered herself to be plain; then she met a man who swept her off her feet and she leapt into marriage, learning his true history and nature too late. To escape, Marjory joined her estranged father in Florida, writing for his newspaper.

Waiting for her divorce to be granted, Marjory falls in love. WWI separates them, and when he returns, she must decide between marriage to a wounded soul or a career and work as an activist to protect the Everglades.

The imagined early life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a story of a woman rising above the limitations of family and social constraints. The novel is in her voice, and told in alternating time lines of her early life within a suspenseful frame story. It is a page-turner.

The novel offers a vivid portrait of Florida, Miami Beach merely an idea, Coconut Grove isolated cottages. Marjory witnesses how a sand bar and mangrove swamp was drained and filled in to create Miami Beach. 
He was stealing the land--changing it, moving it, using it--but unlike a common thief, he felt no need to hide.~ from Among the Beautiful Beasts by Lori McMullen
Now, I want a second volume that tells the story of her life's work as a writer and activist! Marjory lived to be 108 years old! 

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

Among the Beautiful Beasts
by Lori McMullen
She Writes Press
Pub Date 01 Jun 2021 
ISBN: 9781647421069
paperback $16.95 (USD)

about the author Lori McMullen
I grew up in unincorporated Dade County, outside of Miami. My father was a Vietnam vet who supervised a soda bottling warehouse, and my mother was an aide in the public schools. As a family, we took one trip each year — to the west coast of Florida. The best part of this trip was the drive along Route 41, a two-lane, pot-hole ridden stretch of road that bisected Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. The vast, wild space enthralled me, and as I got older and began to write fiction, South Florida found its way into my stories again and again. My short story “Gringa” appeared in the Tampa Review, and my short story “June Bug” recently appeared in Slush Pile magazine. Among the Beautiful Beasts is my first novel.

I left Miami to attend Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School. Currently, I live with my husband and three daughters in Chicago. My passion for horseback riding is nearly as great as my passion for writing, and any free time I have is spent riding and jumping my horse.

from the publisher

Set in the early 1900s, Among the Beautiful Beasts is the untold story of the early life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, known in her later years as a tireless activist for the Florida Everglades. 

After a childhood spent in New England estranged from her father and bewildered by her mother, who fades into madness, Marjory marries a swindler thirty years her senior. The marriage nearly destroys her, but Marjory finds the courage to move to Miami, where she is reunited with her father and begins a new life as a journalist in that bustling, booming frontier town. 

Buoyed by a growing sense of independence and an affair with a rival journalist, Marjory embraces a life lived at the intersection of the untamed Everglades and the rapacious urban development that threatens it. 

When the demands of a man once again begin to swallow Marjory’s own desires and dreams, she sees herself in the vulnerable, inimitable Everglades and is forced to decide whether to commit to a life of subjugation or leap into the wild unknown. 

Told in chapters that alternate between an urgent midnight chase through the wetlands and extensive narrative flashbacks, Among the Beautiful Beasts is at once suspenseful and deeply reflective.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books by Jess McHugh

One of the books in our library is my mother-in-law's copy of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book. The volume show the stains and wear of fifty-nine years of hard use. 

Laura prided herself on her abilities in the kitchen, especially as a baker of cookies and pies. Any family gathering she would have two pies to choose from, served a few hours after a big dinner.

After reading the chapter on the Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book in Americanon, I took the cook book from the shelf and discovered Laura had a first edition!

The Picture Cook Book would have saved me loads of trouble as I learned to cook. Everything a new cook needed to know could be found in these pages, starting with the basics of measuring.
Jess McHugh writes that Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book was only outsold by the Bible, earning it a place in her list of books that form the American Canon, books that formed American's identity while enforcing the status quo of the white, European, upper class.

Betty Crocker was a fictional creation used to sell products and educate homemakers, but she became a friend in need to millions of her fans who wrote her revelatory letters. Her advice aided women through depressions and war rationing. And she promoted General Mills products, such as Bisquick, which was always in my mom's kitchen.

Other books in the 'canon' were as ubiquitous in American homes, inspiring and informing readers. The people who wrote these books did not always live in alignment with what they preached. The values Americans discovered in the books were traditional, not progressive. Women were domestic goddesses, immigrants were to be Americanized, LGBTQ were sick criminals, and people of color were ignored, marginalized, or downright thrust into racist stereotypes.

The most modern popular books are the self-help books that sell a kind of religion of the self, proposing that it is in our power to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. (Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography had a heavy dose of  such advice, as well.) The authors of these books had personal hobby-horses to promote. Many were unqualified to give medical, sexual, financial, or mental health advice. 

The language we speak and the spelling we use, our agreed upon social interactions, even our sexual life, have been based upon these books. For better, and often definitely for worse, they formed our national identity and character.

I received a free galley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

Books in the Americanon include
  • The Old Farmer's Almanac
  • Webster's Speller and Dictionary
  • Benjamin Franklkn's Autobiogrpahy
  • The McGuffrey Reader
  • A Handbook to American Womanhood by Catherine Beecher
  • Etiquette in Society, in Buisness, and at Home by Emily Post
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnagie
  • Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book
  • Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) ny Dr. Reuben
  • 1980s Self Help Books

Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books
by Jess McHugh
Pub Date June 1, 2021 
ISBN 9781524746636
hardcover $28.00 (USD)

from the publisher

Surprising and delightfully engrossing, Americanon explores the true history of thirteen of the nation’s most popular books. Overlooked for centuries, our simple dictionaries, spellers, almanacs, and how-to manuals are the unexamined touchstones for American cultures and customs. These books sold tens of millions of copies and set out specific archetypes for the ideal American, from the self-made entrepreneur to the humble farmer.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Webster's Dictionary, Emily Post’s Etiquette: Americanon looks at how these ubiquitous books have updated and reemphasized potent American ideals—about meritocracy, patriotism, or individualism—at crucial moments in history. Old favorites like the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book are seen in this new way—not just as popular books but as foundational texts that shaped our understanding of the American story.

Taken together, these books help us understand how their authors, most of them part of a powerful minority, attempted to construct meaning for the majority. Their beliefs and quirks—as well as personal interests, prejudices, and often strange personalities—informed the values and habits of millions of Americans, woven into our cultural DNA over generations of reading and dog-earing. Yet their influence remains uninvestigated. Until now.

What better way to understand a people than to look at the books they consumed most, the ones they returned to repeatedly, with questions about everything from spelling to social mobility to sex? This fresh and engaging book is American history as you’ve never encountered it before.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

After the Fall: Being American in the World We've Made by Ben Rhodes

Like all human beings, we are fallen, able to do both good and evil. ~from After the Fall by Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes calls  After the Fall a book of stories, the story of his journey from idealist patriot to questioning the myths we share, from working with President Obama to seeing their legacy dismantled. 

Endeavoring to understand the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism across the world, he tells the stories of people who fight for democratic rights in increasingly authoritarian countries and how they are imprisoned, tortured, poisoned, and silenced.

And he tells the story of how America has veered from its ideals and helped to create the world we live in today: how unconstrained capitalism destroyed the global economy in 2008, eroding faith in democracy and capitalism; how 'forever wars' eroded individual rights and created ethnic hate: how love of money trumped concern for human rights; how technology impacted us for better and for worse; how a pandemic revealed "our most profound failings."
...Values like equality are no longer the business of governments around the world, they have been left to individuals to defend.~ from After the Fall by Ben Rhodes
Rhodes sees the cycle "between autocracy and democracy, the powerful and the oppressed, corrupted system and the uncorrupted masses," but holds onto the hope that, overall, the world arcs toward justice. 

We have the opportunity, he writes, to "make capitalism about something more than money, to make national security about something other than subjugation, to make technology work better as a tool for human enlightenment. To learn from others around the world instead of thinking that is is always we who have something to teach them."

I have read other books about these subjects. What sets this one apart is Rhodes' heart and passion, his openness about his journey, and his empathy for the resistance leaders he meets.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

After the Fall: Being American in the World We've Made
by Ben Rhodes
Random House Publishing Group - Random House
Pub Date June 1, 2021   
ISBN: 9781984856050
hardcover $28.00 (USD)

from the publisher

Ben Rhodes is the author of the New York Times bestseller The World as It Is, co-host of Pod Save the World, a contributor for NBC News and MSNBC, and an adviser to former president Barack Obama.

Why is democracy so threatened in America and around the world? And what can we do about it? A former White House aide and close confidant to President Barack Obama—and the New York Times bestselling author of The World as It Is—travels the globe in a deeply personal, beautifully observed quest for answers.

In 2017, as Ben Rhodes was helping Barack Obama begin his next chapter, the legacy they had worked to build for eight years was being taken apart. To understand what was happening in America, Rhodes decided to look outward. 

Over the next three years, he traveled to dozens of countries, meeting with politicians, activists, and dissidents confronting the same nationalism and authoritarianism that was tearing America apart. Along the way, a Russian opposition leader he spoke with was poisoned, the Hong Kong protesters he came to know saw their movement snuffed out, and America itself reached the precipice of losing democracy before giving itself a second chance.

Part memoir and part reportage, After the Fall is a hugely ambitious and essential work of discovery. In his travels, Rhodes comes to realize how much America’s fingerprints are on a world we helped to shape, through our post–Cold War embrace of unbridled capitalism and our post-9/11 nationalism and militarism; our mania for technology and social media; and the racism that fueled the backlash to America’s first Black president. 

At the same time, Rhodes learns from the stories of a diverse set of characters—from Barack Obama himself to Cuban rebels to a rising generation of international leaders—that looking squarely at where America has gone wrong makes clear how essential it is to fight for what America is supposed to be, for our own country and the entire world.