nonfiction

The Best Books for World Book Day!

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23 April is World Book Day, so Bree and I thought we would take a moment to share some of our favorite books from different genres than we normally share! Read the rest of this entry »

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Mini-review | The Witch of Lime Street by David Jahr

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The Witch of Lime Street is a nonfiction work all about spiritualism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Jahr chronicles the unlikely pair’s complex relationship with both spiritualism and one another. In particular, it focuses on times surrounding the Scientific American‘s search to prove whether or not spirits, ectoplasm, and the whole shebang are real and measurable by scientific standards.

The story is an interesting one, with the two at times opposed and working together. I hadn’t realized at first that either had been heavily involved in the spiritualist movement in any capacity. Finding out that the ever rational Doyle was in fact a devout spiritualist was a bit surprising, less so to find that Houdini played a demysticizing role in the movement.

The storytelling style is friendly, it doesn’t get bogged down in scientific or overly historical jargon. The problem, I found, was that the story goes a bit too into detail. As a result, the story feels as though it flounders. It drags a lot.

Similarly, it feels like it lacks focus. It gets to its namesake (The Witch of Lime Street) after more than 200 pages, and even after that the story isn’t really about her. It just seemed a bit lackluster.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review

Review| The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

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I know I wasn’t the only kid who was obsessed with ancient Egypt. Mummification, awesome gods, and pharaohs, what wasn’t to love? So, the offer to read The Woman Who Would Be King, the story of Hatshepsut, felt like a no-brainer.

I had high hopes going in. The author, Kara Cooney, is a professor at UCLA. She teaches Egyptian art and architecture. She’s also consulted for Discovery Channel. I was a bit surprised, however, at the extent of research she put into a book primarily aimed at laypersons. The notes and citations is near 50 pages long. It was a bit mind boggling to see, pleasantly so.

The story begins before Hatshepsut was conceived, with her father’s rise to power. In doing this, Cooney is able to construct the context in which Hatshepsut grows up and the politics she deals with. Cooney continues throughout Hatshepsut’s acquisition of power, and, finally, ending with the near systematic eradication of Hatshepsut from the historical record.

One of the best parts of this book was the way that Cooney fills in the missing parts of the story. Much of the personal lives of Egyptian royalty was not recorded. Personal matters weren’t taken down in official records, leaving much of the relationships and day-to-day lives of leaders a mystery. To Cooney’s credit, she never attempts to state that Hatshepsut or any other player’s life was certainly one way. She presents a case for the person’s life, providing alternative explanations and arguments. While her arguments may be strong, it lends a lot of credibility to see why she believes that Hatshepsut’s life was a certain way or other.

The story is extremely thorough and very complex. Thoughts about Hatshepsut are often overly simplistic. People present her as a woman who rose to power through ambition alone. Cooney shows that the story is actually much more complicated. There were religious and political considerations that led to her gaining and keeping power. She shows Hatshepsut as a woman motivated by family concerns, a deep-seated piety, and concern for her country. As a result, the story is believable and infinitely more realistic than more simplistic versions.

Cooney doesn’t shy away from the discussion of gender and sexuality. While little is actually known about Hatshepsut’s sexuality or sexual life, gender was clearly a concern throughout her reign. She was a female king in a patriarchal society. Records of her life show the transition from wife to regent to king as a complicated dance wherein Hatshepsut had to balance the political, societal, and religious understanding of gender and sexuality, ideas which are very different from our own. Cooney shows this with a great deal of nuance and provides the broader cultural context for a reader to understand the shift.

Overall, I was very impressed with Cooney’s story. It’s very readable without sacrificing understanding or content. She doesn’t pretend the story is anything other than what it is, but, at the same time, she gives a nuanced explanation for what may have happened during Hatshepsut’s life and rule.

I received a copy of The Woman Who Would Be King for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

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Well, if you’re looking for a bit of a punch to the gut, I’ve found it for you. The Underground Girls of Kabul is a very good read. Using her journalistic experience and a well-informed, extremely well researched knowledge base, Nordberg constructs an image of Afghanistan that isn’t readily available to the average reader.

The subject of The Underground Girls of Kabul is extremely interesting. Nordberg focuses in on the little-known phenomenon of young girls being raised as boys in Afghanistan. These girls, known as the bacha posh, aren’t often acknowledged by Afghan society. Nordberg noted them by accident, during an interview with a female politician in the Afghani parliament. When she went to gender studies experts in Afghanistan, no one had much to offer on the phenomenon. So, Nordberg undertook to discover more about who the bacha posh are, why they exist, and what the impact is on Afghani society.

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg uses a combination of extended interview, narrative forms, and analysis to create a picture of what it’s like to be a girl raised as a son in Afghanistan, and more difficult, describe what happens to the bacha posh when these girls raised as sons are forced back into the traditional family lifestyle and rigid gender roles of womanhood. The story is engaging in and of itself, and Nordberg adds to the interest by writing in a forthright and contemplative manner. She relates the stories of many women who were raised as bacha posh and talks about the difficulties of the transition back to traditional womanhood, and shows the sometimes very tangible benefits of time spent as a son.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s the kind of book I find very appealing, and Nordberg doesn’t shy away from the complicated discussion of gender identity and rights that the subject matter invites. The bacha posh introduce a fascinating situation that lends itself to discussion of nature v. nurture, whether gender truly is a learned aspect, and if the international aid community is really achieving what it has set out to do in Afghanistan.

The story is approached in a first person narrative focusing around Nordberg’s experiences interviewing women who had been raised by sons. The tales she relays range the gambit from young girls only now being raised as sons to teens about to have to transition back to the role of daughter, to women who have and have not accepted the transition. It’s emotionally insightful.

While there is a lot of analysis going on, and a lot of interesting and informative sidebar discussions in the book, the women’s stories are the strongest point. Their personal lives are the true hook in the story. Nordberg runs a careful line of contextualization and over-explanation. Fortunately, there were only a few times where she ventures into too much explanation. When it does cross that line however, the analysis isn’t quite to the break down level I’d like. The case studies could have benefited from more depth in the analysis. Nordberg uses the cases as evidence for statements about the Afghan culture without always making the inferences in her argument clear. I’m a fan of challenging one’s assumptions in the course of creating an argument and sometimes I thought Nordberg could have done more to truly support what she was saying. The argument is also straight forward without much allowance for conflicting explanations or confounding variables.

The journalistic sense in the book, however, is excellent, with lots of background research and a very thorough attempt to detail her subjects’ lives. It’s also very emotionally impactful. Overall, I think it’s a good introduction to gender identity and societal influences, but may lead those with a stronger social science background wanting more.

*I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.