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Quick Takes On Books I’ve Read in 2011

Posted in Book Reviews on December 31st, 2011
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My “to be read” pile of books is pretty darn big, and so I don’t always get to the newest books right away. However, I did get a chance to read these books fairly soon after their release dates. Here are my thoughts on some of this years books.

Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom
I heard an interview with Bloom on The Stephanie Miller Show promoting this book and my reaction was a bit confused. It’s important for people to call out how increasingly stupid our culture is becoming. But I was also wary of the tone of the subtitle – women don’t need someone else shaming them for being trivial. However, I think that the book was well done, especially in the first section which explains why it’s important for people, especially women to pay attention to world news and politics. The second section had some suggestions for how to educate yourself with a lot of resources for doing so. I especially admire Bloom’s promotion of this book which has included her now famous editorial imploring adults to ask little girls what books they are reading instead of merely telling them they are pretty, and her follow-up begging women to start building their self esteem by learning to accept compliments gracefully. My main criticism of this book is that I think Bloom may be preaching to the choir. I’ve found that people who are content to only consume media that is sensational and unchallenging are not likely to change their habits because they are happy the way they are. My few female friends who don’t vote see my interest in politics as the equal of any other hobby.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein
For years I have been reading editorials from parents concerned about trends in children’s entertainment that have made princesses an obsession for many young girls. I’ve observed this from a far, not having any children of my own. But I was interested in a more in depth study of the topic, and Orenstein tackles the subject with relish. Her descriptions of a toy industry convention and a trip to the American Girl Store in New York City are especially interesting. I hope that the trend changes into something more egalitarian – shows like Powerpuff Girls and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic can have aspects of traditionally feminine aesthetics without being insulting to girls (or boys.)

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
I’ve been a fan of Oswalt since his recurring role as a Dungeons and Dragons player on Reno 911! His interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast brought my attention to his memoir. It focuses on his adolescence and the beginnings of his career as a standup comic. Oswalt is a gifted storyteller and the tales of his life as a young nerd coming of age are poignant and funny. It reminded me in some ways of Wil Wheaton’s Just A Geek. Highly recommended.

Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office by Lynn Peril
I’ve read Lynn Peril’s other books – Pink Think and College Girls and was not disappointed with her third foray into the realm of kitsch and feminism. Peril documents the history of women in white collar corporate America through the role of the secretary with fascinating detail and plenty of wry humor.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
I don’t read a lot of fiction these days, but I do love Tom Perrotta. His most recent novel details what the would would be like if The Rapture actually did occur. Perrotta’s portrayal of suburban America is spot on as usual and during a recent visit to New Jersey, I half expected to see his characters walking down the street. This novel is, I think, the saddest of the ones he has written and this is appropriate given the subject matter. The characters drift, trying to make sense of what has happened, and the whole thing feels so real. What I always loved about Perrotta’s writing is the ability to take something surreal that almost strained credulity (the lunch truck mafia in Joe College, or the underground football league in Little Children) and make me able to accept it and suspend my disbelief. The basic plot of the story already contains the fantastic and provides the grounding for the characters and plot to advance.

Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan
This book was one I simply had to read the week it came out. I read Nathan’s other book Satan’s Silence about the Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980′s and was amazed that she had exposed another horrific story as being mostly falsehood. Before I read this book, I read the original Sybil – which I found to be incredibly sensational, and extremely dated in terms of the way Sybil’s mental illness is explained – the explanation is entirely Freudian. Nathan lays out her case clearly and solidly, telling the story of not only Shirley Mason, but Dr. Wilbur and Flora Schriber – three very intelligent and ambitious women who became trapped in their own lies. Our modern understanding of Multiple Personality Disorder – that a person can become very good at self hypnosis fits the facts of this case entirely. The story is a sad one, and I think Nathan’s point that these women built up this deception because as women they had few other choices to gain success is a strong one. A full view of how limited their options were is important to understanding how and why this deceit took place. Nathan’s analysis that the story of Sybil was so popular because of how it fit with the gender norms of the time is spot on. I also re-watched the made for television movie based on the book, and while I now know the story to be absolute bunk, Sally Field and Joanne Woodward give performances that stand the test of time. This story is so entrenched in our culture, I doubt it will go away, but I do hope that Debbie Nathan will continue to write books that challenge us to rethink what we think we know.

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