By Michelle Railey
Roy and Lesley Adkins. Jane Austen’s England. (2013, Viking) A husband-and-wife archaeologist team walk into a bar…and come up with a non-fiction romp through late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century England. Covering life and daily routine from morning through night, birth through death of the average Briton living in the Age of Austen, this book is a compendium of interesting social and cultural history. It is a rapid, dense read; giving more to the reader than one would think from the number of pages, Austen-affiliation, and “embroidered” cover. If you like history, whether or not you like Austen, this book has a wealth of little facts, from underwear to funerary rites, to crime and flossing. Without sentimentality, the scholarship is well-footnoted and ever-present but it doesn’t grind the reader’s face off or anything. It’s a solid, interesting book, whether you’re a wanna-be scholar or a trivia-phile. The Adkins have you covered either way.
Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser.The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril. (2003, Vintage) I had actually been hoping to read Thomas Patterson’s Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism but that wasn’t on the shelves at the library, so I pulled this title, which was written in 2002. The year it was written is important here: this book is a snapshot of life in the U.S. and journalism in the U.S. right after 9/11. 9/11 itself is in every chapter; the media response to it is a frequent example of signs of hope for journalism: journalists doing some actual journalism, which the authors hoped would be a resurgence of the quality of newspapers — spoiler: it wasn’t. The book was especially helpful on explaining the machinations of syndication and conglomeration which have decimated the local news business.The book is dated but well-written and probably a good reference for the beginnings of themes still current now: the disappearance of genuine newspapers, the decline of journalism and journalistic standards, the need for information in a sea of infotainment, the rise of cable news and internet opinion. The themes are solid and still valuable and this was worth a read, but the last chapters on the internet were nearly comical (remember when AOL was cutting-edge? Dial-up? This chapter came perilously close to citing Tandy and AltaVista). No fault of the authors, certainly, the times were the times at the time they were the times. Still, it’s a relevant read by smart writers who were chained to a precise moment and were writing passionately and with great depth of knowledge about something they believed in: a something that seemed big then but is leviathan and constantly moving now. I’m still jonesing for the Patterson book.
Dianne Hales. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (2014, Simon & Schuster) Non-fiction travelogue on a journey through Italy to discover the life of Lisa Gherardini, Leonardo da Vinci, and all persons remotely associated with the Mona Lisa (albeit precious little to any scholarly theories which suppose La Gioconda is not exclusively and loyally the portrait of a Florentine housewife named Lisa Gherardini). This book is not written by a scholar. It’s written by a magazine features author. And that’s what it reads like: a great, big, ham-handed batch of first-person magazine articles from a “woman’s” magazine. “Curiosity leads me, via a typically Italian network…to the world’s expert,” and “Was Lisa disappointed?” Hales uses tense shifts in a clumsy way to separate now (Hales’ own journey through Florence and the present day) from then (da Vinci’s world; Gherardini’s marriage and births, home and death). The decision behind the tense shifts is reasonable but the effect is treacly, overly sentimental, and very difficult to take seriously. Instead of drawing the reader in as a viewer, thinker, or participant, the author’s tense shifts and saccharine language and foci exclude the reader, inserting a subtly sticky wall, asserting only the off-putting and intrinsically awkward authorial voice. While there are the occasional flashes of interest — the few well-researched areas of cultural and social history of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy — the obsessive “what would Lisa think?” angle results in a cloying tangle of Lifetime Television for Women: Just Lisa, the author, and the reader, all stuck together in an elevator with a heavy dose of cheap old-lady perfume. Not recommended for reading without a syringe of insulin handy.
John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (2010, Harper Collins) Humane and clear-eyed behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 presidential election. Hugely entertaining and endlessly fascinating, this book is now Required Reading heading into the 2016 presidential election (i.e. Understanding Hillaryland). It would be easy to think initially that the book is gossipy until one reads the notes explaining the methodology behind the candidates’ thoughts and words. An excellent first-draft of recent history that tells the reader something vital and something important about Obama, McCain, Clinton, Christie, Huckabee, Romney, and Palin — even if the reader can’t quite put his finger on it. This book (and the follow-up on the 2012 presidential election, Double Down) is a Must-Have if you love politics: this is the deep background you’ve been looking for. If you want to know just how deft and humane Heilemann and Halperin are: they even manage to make Bachmann and Palin seem semi- to fully-sympathetic.
Charles C. Mann. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2011, Vintage/Random House) Non-fiction assemblage of science, history, and economics on the newer discoveries surrounding life before the landing of Columbus and the impacts of the Columbian Exchange. (It should be noted here that Mann has also written the follow-up to this book, which is more global in scope, and is called 1493.) If I knew anyone going to college or currently in college, I would hand them this book as an example of how to evaluate scholarship and how to use language. Mann is a master. This book is interesting and rich on its subject matter, yes, but what it truly manages to accomplish is nothing short of a miracle: an exposition and how-to manual on how to think about studies, peoples, and language; how to draw reasonable conclusions; how to weigh the evidence; a treatise on the slipperiness of fact and how to choose language in a fashion to give dignity to people and thoughts alike, while simultaneously explaining why the choices were made the way they were along the way. And to be reasonably concise while so doing. Worth a read if you’re a history buff but immeasurably more important if you’re broadly interested in the hows and whys of thought.
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