Book Review: The Sky is Yours

We should all know better than to judge a book by its cover, but when I saw The Sky is Yours in my NetGalley menu, with the neon dragons in the ouroboros pattern against a brick wall backdrop, I was instantly intrigued. The premise only further cemented my interest, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy.

The cover of The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith

Author: Chandler Klang Smith

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.53

Language scaling: C2

Summary: A estranged betrothed couple and a feral girl try to make sense of their lives in a post-apocalyptic New York, which ends up having city-wide ramifications.

Content warning: It’s a borderline anarchic apocalypse so there’s low-key brutal violence throughout that doesn’t happen entirely off page, plus some sex scenes here and there.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans, 19th century novel of manners fans

In-depth thoughts: Sometimes I read a book and even if it’s not entirely my cup of tea, I stand in awe of the craftsmanship. So it is with The Sky is Yours. Smith’s world building is par excellence and the way she incorporates elements of our present and past is seamless and, of course, entirely plausible. Small things like: one character happens to find a book of poetry by her father and notes in the copyright page that it was “print on demand.” Her immediate thought is that he must have been a writer of incredible renown, to have his book so constantly in demand. Or another character suffering “affluenza” that needs the occasional administrations of an inhaler.

What kept me from rating it any higher is how much of it there is. Smith includes a lot of asides and multiple perspectives, which results in a complex and gritty world that feels very real, even though there are a pair of dragons flying around and laying waste to New York City. The multiple voices are handled deftly, so that you can always tell which character with you’re with. It’s an altogether big project and Smith pulls it off well. Nothing wrong with any of that.

On the other hand, much of it doesn’t serve the plot in any significant way. I don’t think plot should be the be-all, end-all of novels, but there’s a fine line between complexity and getting lost in yourself. There are bits and asides here and there that mostly seem to be written for the sake of a gag or two, and whether the payoff is worth it will always be a subjective issue. Not all of the characters Smith chooses to develop in their own chapters are interesting enough to warrant the attention, either. (Spoiler alert: some of them end up dead pretty quickly, so there’s not much point in getting to know them.)

Serious students of writing will be interested in the pineapple-on-pizza quality of genre mash-up at work here: post-apocalyptic dystopia plus classic novel of manners sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does—and well, at that. Sci fi fans and 19th century literature fans might well enjoy it, to the extent they feel The Sky is Yours draws on their respective genres. EFL readers might want to approach with caution: there is a combination of faux-archaic English, portmanteaus, in-jokes, and puns that forms the bedrock of the book, so I would only recommend it for fairly advanced speakers.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 17, Part I: Road Trip to Maine

It’s showtime!

This day ends up being long, to the tune of 20 hours long: I got up at 4 am and I finally crashed at around midnight. It was basically two days crammed into one, so I’ll split it into two parts.

A insisted at the close of last night that she’d be up to say goodbye, but of course she wasn’t and I knew she wouldn’t because she’s an exhausted mother of two children, so I wasn’t surprised. I managed to make it out the door without leaving anything behind, except Her Smoke Rises Up Forever. I didn’t realize that for a while, and when I finally did I was a little sad because I get sentimental about books from friends, but I already have other books from Noah in my library (The Fifth Season, Harpo Speaks!, Name of the Rose) so I wasn’t as heartbroken as I might have otherwise been when I finally realized what had happened.

“I absolutely do not trust myself to drive on any leg of this trip,” I told L as we get ready. “Driving myself? Fine. If I eat it, whatever. But you’re a dad now. I couldn’t live with myself if something happened. I’ll stay up and keep you company, though.” Which is a bigger deal promise than maybe it sounds because I can fall asleep in cars at the drop of a hat.

“That’s fair.”

It was still dark when we took off. The only other cars we saw were trucks and tractor trailers. Every time we passed one, I held my breath and tensed up. I trusted L; I did’t trust truckers on the road at 4 am.

“The one thing I really wanna do on this trip is get breakfast at a proper greasy spoon truck stop diner,” L said early on in the drive. “A place where you can sit on stools at the counter. I can’t do that with the boys. I was thinking we could find one once we get to Massachusetts.”

“Omigod, yes. Sweden doesn’t do diners. That sounds perfect. My treat.”

We hit Mass at around 6 in the morning, and after a little futzing with the GPS we decided to try a coffee shop in a strip mall. I was wary, because it’s hard to have a proper diner in a strip mall, but coffee is coffee and you want the driver on your road trip to be as awake and alert as possible, so I took the compromise.

Except it wasn’t a compromise, and inside it was a proper full-on greasy spoon, including the low-budget Americana decor.

A diner in Massachusetts in the early morning hours. The view is across a counter, under which you can see some basic food prep supplies, to the far wall with a fridge full of sodas, a shelf of tea selections, and plants and wall art.
A beloved American tradition.

Yes, we got to sit on stools at the counter. L was pleased as punch and so was I.

American-style waffles with creamy butter and some fruit, on a white plate.
Big fluffy American waffles!

“If this isn’t nice, what is?” I thought to myself, and for the half-hour or so that we were relaxing and having a proper roadtrip breakfast, I could forget about all of the stress and awfulness going on around us.

The glass display counter by the register had some baked goods, because of course, and so we each picked out a donut to have as a snack later as I paid up. The shelf behind the register also boasted a number of teas; in addition to the usual English Breakfast and Earl Grey, I spotted THIN MINTS TEA.

A box of Bigelow Thin Mints tea.

“Holy crap, they make thin mints tea now?!”

The waitress gushed. “Oh yeah, it’s great. Here, take a bag. Free sample.”

“Aw, nice. Thanks!”

Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty tasty tea.

The sun was up now. It was weird to think that it was 7 am and we’d been up for hours. Bolstered by our food (diner food is magic, I’m pretty sure), we continue northwards. There were other cars on the road now; it felt more normal and less lonely and apocalyptic. Once we hit Maine, we pulled over in a rest stop to have our donuts and change out of lazy driving clothes into proper wedding clothes.

This was when L realized that the pants he meant to wear, with the cigars he bought for the occasion, were at home, but the good news is he had everything else, including another pair of dress-y pants in the car already, so it wasn’t a sartorial emergency. We also realized that we didn’t have the address for the church and since neither of us had data on our phones, I put in a call to A to do some Internet sleuthing for us.

“Hi sweetie!” A chirped. I was calling from L’s phone.

“Hi sweetie yourself,” I joked back. She laughed.

“Oh, hi Koba. Everything going okay?”

“Yeah, peachy keen. But can you do us a favor and look up an address for us? The invitation only has the address for the reception, not where the ceremony’s going to be.”

“Sure, just a second.” I could hear her negotiate with the oldest over use of the tablet, and some wondering aloud about if the place she found Googling was where we were going, but eventually she found it.

“Sorry I wasn’t up to see you guys off. I totally meant to, but…”

“Nah, it’s fine. We left super early.”

“Well, have a good time! It was good to see you. That was a good talk we had. It’s a lot to think about.”

“Anytime. It was good to see you, too. I’m sure I’ll be around again at some point. People can’t stop getting married.” Four more friends from this college crowd aren’t married yet and I can safely assume I’ll be invited to those weddings, plus Noah’s if they decide to take that leap. Plus the odd assortment of friends I have outside of Hamilton. “Have fun with the boys.”

“I will. Bye Koba!”


L had estimated the time for the wedding ceremony wrong, but in our favor: he was planning for 10:00 am, not 10:30. “Oh, sweet. Then we have time to get some Moxie!”

I laughed. “Yes, definitely.”

We found the nearest grocery store according to the GPS and L helped himself to the remaining cases of diet Moxie left on the shelf, four in all. He knew that an anniversary present from A arrived in the mail the other day, but I had no idea if he knew that it was Moxie. Well, it’s not like it’ll sit around unappreciated, I thought.

“Someone likes Moxie,” an older woman remarked quizzically, confused over why someone would stock up on so much regional soft drink. Diet, at that.

“We don’t have it in Albany,” L explained, and the woman maybe nodded or said something, I forget, but we made a beeline for the checkout, loaded up the car, and returned to the church-adjacent neighborhood to find some parking.

Friday 5: Goundhog Day

What’s your favorite Bill Murray performance?

His cameo in Zombieland is one of the best cameos ever, in any movie or TV show.

What’s been a highlight of your winter so far?

I’ve got some very good news about a couple of creative projects, which I’m being vague about here for multiple reasons.

What’s there to look forward to in the next six weeks?

The return of the sun and an end to the ice. I want to be able to go out running again!

Too early for flapjacks?

Maybe, but never too early for waffles.

If someone in a bar asks to buy you a drink (and let’s just say for the sake of the question you are amenable), what do you order?

A Long Island iced tea. Always a Long Island iced tea.

Book Review: One Day in the Life of Denis Ivanovich

I’ve long been interested in Russian literature, so when this title came up in the comments section of my favorite writing blog, I added it to my towering GoodReads “to read” shelf. A book club buddy gifted me a copy earlier this year and so I immediately sat down to read it.

The Penguin Classics cover of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, featuring a black and white photograph of someone in a prison.

Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; H. T. Willetts, translator

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.95

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: One day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in hyper-realism; anyone interested in Russian literature from the Soviet era

In-depth thoughts: Nothing happens, which will either bother you or it won’t. I’ve long been a fan of the “slice of life” kind of stories, where small struggles gain epic proportions (television shows like The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Seinfeld, movies like Clerks), and that’s largely what One Day… is. It’s just that the backdrop is a prison camp instead of American suburban life. If your tastes overlap with mine, then you’ll get a lot out of it. But if “a book about nothing, set in a gulag” sounds tedious to you, then it probably won’t be a lot of fun to read. (Not that it was “fun,” exactly.)

Because of the specific setting, and because so much of it centers around very small details and very small, easily overlooked items, reading the English translation might be difficult for lower level readers. (Unless you want to look up a whole bunch of new words about army barracks and stonemasony and so on). But for those already familiar with the original, or with a higher level of English, this translation is of interest.

The Value of Daily Classroom Journals

I start every lesson with my younger and beginner-to-intermediate students with a brief journaling activity, depending on student level:

  • Little ones who are still learning how to read and write circle a sight word related to feelings, and then draw a picture of themselves.
  • Slightly older ones who have mastered reading and writing but are still low level in English write about one thing they did and one thing they want to do, complete with picture.
  • Older students, or ones who are already at a more advanced level, have four brief prompts without pictures: what they did last week, one thing they wish they could change, what they hope will happen, and what will probably happen

They’re basically a formalized version of the little ceremonial warm-up chat that I have with my more advanced students. By making that small talk part of the lesson in a more official way, it makes the lesson more about them. It can be a great shortcut around any resentment younger students might have since they’re often (but not always) engaged in lessons at the behest of their parents. Journals don’t really feel like work, and it lets students write or talk about themselves, which is everyone’s favorite topic!

A silver pen in a blank, open journal.

The luxury of private instruction is that I’m not crunched for time or beholden to a particular schedule, so I can spend as long on journals as works. I think this is especially important within the context of private lessons, since they’re taking precious free time away. I’m not a proponent of the idea that teachers need to be clowns or entertainers; rather that the value of language in terms of self expression needs to be emphasized in certain contexts. Rather than declaring X amount of minutes for journals, the same amount every time, I let it go as long as it needs. Sometimes a student had a really exciting week at school and they have a lot to talk about; sometimes there’s not much to say at all.

While they’re writing (or talking), I make a deliberate effort to ask as many questions as I can think of to elicit more details. I also make a note to ask follow-up questions in the next lesson, such as inquiring about how a test, project, or sports game went. I seem to have a natural memory for these things, but if you don’t, you can keep a little daybook of students and their activities, where you can make notes about their plans right after lessons and what you can refer to right before a lesson for a refresher.  This is important not only for generating more material to “exploit” (to use a piece of jargon), but for more altruistic reasons. Over the long term, it’s much easier to connect to a teacher who demonstrably cares about you than one who’s only interested in what you accomplish during your hour or two of instruction every week. Likewise, when you get to know students, you become even more invested in their success, in language and in everything else.

This can also apply to self-study. It might not always be possible to find someone to talk to (native speaker or otherwise), but whether or not you can carve out the time for a little journaling is fairly easy to control. And now with the Internet, it’s trivial to find someone who can correct your work and provide feedback, whether it’s for free (on something like Lang-8) or for minimal cost (on something like Ediket). The first step in being able to talk about anything else is always being able to talk about yourself. So get journaling!

Friday 5: Returns

A few people skateboarding down Twin Peaks Blvd. in San Francisco on a sunny day.

What was the last item you returned or exchanged at a store?

I’m generally pretty conservative in purchases and don’t need to return or exchange things that often. I guess the last thing was some moldy veggie burgers? You can’t exactly see that something’s moldy through the cardboard packaging.

When did you last leave the house and then turn right back around and go back inside?

I do this fairly often, because I don’t have my life together. The last time I wish I had done that but couldn’t was when I realized I had forgotten the right journal page en route to a student.

What’s the latest you’ve ever returned a library book?

I’m a really good library user; I’m never more than a few days overdue, and rarely then!

What location among places you’ve traveled would you most like to see again?

I absolutely loved my long weekend in Indonesia and would love to go back for a longer visit. I’m also looking forward to traveling to South Korea for a wedding in 2019 (knock on wood!) and revisiting all of my favorites there–and possibly making some new ones?

What’s an unlikely movie sequel you’d like to see?

One of my fellow teachers in Korea once joked about “why didn’t anyone make a sequel to Titanic” except I wasn’t entirely sure that he was joking. I’ve never seen Titanic, though, and I have no interest in it, so that wouldn’t be a sequel I’d like to see (unlikely as it may be). Otherwise, is anything really an “unlikely” movie sequel these days? Anything and everything is up for grabs in terms of becoming a franchise, or at least a trilogy.

Var blev du av Bernadette

This review is maybe a first for the blog: a Swedish translation of a book originally published in English. But: doctor, heal thyself; teacher, teach thyself. My advice to students is always first and foremost to read as much as possible. Why shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

The Swedish cover of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" with a cartoon portrait of a white woman with brown hair, wearing a yellow scarf tied over her hair and oversized black sunglasses.
Image courtesy Wahström & Widstrand

Author: Maria Semple

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.91

Language scaling: ??? (best guess, based on the Swedish translation: B2+??)

Summary: Bee has just gotten top marks at her alternative school and as a reward, her family books a cruise to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. Everything goes topsy-turvy when Bee’s mother, Bernadette, goes missing.

Content warning: Bernadette clearly has a host of psychological conditions and I’m not in a position to judge if the book handles that well or not. I’m also not a fan of Semple’s treatment of the Asian characters.

Recommended audience: Anyone who needs a dose of whimsy and humor

In-depth thoughts: Semple does interesting things with form and switches between Bee’s own first-person perspective and an assemblage of documents to build this story, which could have gone wrong but didn’t. I had no problems switching back and forth from documents to Bee’s narration to documents again. Bee, especially, was fun to read and the best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It’s like adults who write for or about teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

The transitions between sections feel sloppy sometimes, due to a jumbled-up timeline. The little blurb at the beginning of the story makes it sound like Bernadette has been missing for years, not mere weeks. I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that’s why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren’t that interesting!

The one thing I’m not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin’s secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!” meme is incredibly tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles” meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I’m sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that’s half a point.

It’s Soo-Lin’s gossip-y insufferability that’s more cringe-inducing than the Yoko Ono gag, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don’t add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That’s one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin’s partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just…there. Still kind of an awful-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by one of the other main characters.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

What Makes a Classic?

One of the very few online groups I belong to is The Classics Club. (Not by way of this specific blog, but via another one.) The idea is simple: come up with a list of 50+ classics to read in the next five years, contact the moderators, and you’re (probably) in! But if you’re not much of a joiner, you can still follow the blog and make use of their spins, check-ins, and the backlog of monthly blog prompts. A recent post on the blog brought up the question: How do you define “classic”?

My own Classics Club list was based on the Top 100 Novels of All TIME. After I graduated from college, I took a year-long break from reading fiction. I’d read and written too much of it over the course of the last four years, and truthfully I was a bit despairing of fiction generally. What’s the point? Who cares about reading made-up stories about made-up people? What’s the value in that? (I don’t know where that streak of hardcore utilitarianism came from; maybe I was actually depressed at the time.) I binged on nonfiction for a while, because I felt like I wanted to learn something about the world. When I felt like I was ready for fiction again, I didn’t know how to direct myself—how to choose my own books. The TIME list was as good as any, so I picked that and went to work.

An old cover of TIME Magazine with the headline "CYBERPUNK: Virtual sex, smart drugs, and synthetic rock 'n' roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground." over an image of a young white male wearing a headset and PowerGlove-like aparatus, seated at a CRT monitor, with a neon purple and pink spiral behind him.

(Obviously not a cover from 2005 but I couldn’t resist using the most hilarious cover of TIME magazine I could find.)

Over time, I made alterations; the list is 79% men (73% white men), which seems a little disproportionate considering how actual America population demographics break down. I didn’t achieve gender parity, but I got closer (26% women / 74% men). I searched out more writers of color. If this list were to accurately reflect US racial demographics in 2005, there would be:

  • 13 Black writers
  • 14 Latinx writers
  • 5 Asian writers (this definition of “Asian” being a broad swathe of nations and ethnicities, from Middle Eastern to East, South, and Southeast Asian; Middle Eastern wasn’t tracked according to the above Pew Center data)

The above statistics don’t list any numbers on Native populations, but later Census data puts it at around 1%. Needless to say, these numbers aren’t reflected in Grossman and Lacayo’s list.

My criteria for replacing a book on the list, such as they were:

  • Authors listed twice had one entry booted (farewell, A Pale Fire; so long, Animal Farm; nice knowing you, A Handful of Dust).
  • Any book whose summary I found really unappealing (Falconer) or whose story or subject matter I felt I was already familiar with via cultural osmosis (Deliverance, Dog Soldiers, Gone With the Wind) could be jettisoned.
  • Any book that I still found boring after a good faith effort (around twenty to fifty pages) could be considered read and/or taken off the list to make room for another book (Revolutionary RoadThe Man Who Loved ChildrenA Death in the Family).
  • If a woman was taken off the list, she could only be replaced with another woman. The same would have been true for writers of color, but I never ended up taking any of them off the list.
  • Another book by the same author counted, if the book on the list was unavailable at the library (Martha Quest instead of The Golden NotebookThe Handmaid’s Tale instead of The Blind Assassin).
  • Books that I had already read could be retroactively counted if I felt they were classics of their own accord (Name of the Rose).
  • Writers of color were given preference when possible.

All in all, this meant that I added the following books to the list:

* this book is out of bounds of the time limit I arbitrarily decided on, which was 1999 (to make a list of great 20th century novels)

** this book is technically out of bounds of the time limit dictated by the original list, since it was published before 1923

So what made those editions “classic” for me? As opposed to other books I read but didn’t add to the list? It’s a very uneven list there, and honestly some of those I might even take off later in favor of something better, but then again the original list was also uneven so if Grossman and Lacayo can usher in some duds, so can I.

The best definition of classic is the quote from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

(Surprising that I would quote Calvino when I find him to be an uneven writer overall, but there it is.)

People gush about classics being “timeless” but that means different things to different people. There are a lot of mediocre writing instructors out there who insist students avoid using things like Facebook or text messages in their stories because “good writing should be timeless,” yet they’re okay with combustible engines and electricity. (Surprise that people of a certain generation always find new technology and developments disturbing! I wonder if writing instructors in the 1920s railed against the use of horseless carriages and radio in stories for the same reason.)

There are universals of human life that have remained the same over time, even if shifting social mores and new technologies have added wrinkles to those experiences. Love, rejection, insecurity, anxiety, hope…nothing can make those irrelevant or passe. Even when you set a story in a very specific historical context (and yes, true, all stories have a historical context), the conflict and the issues related to that context are still around themes relevant to today. Cry the Beloved Country is about troubled race relations immediately preceding apartheid South Africa, but it’s also about forgiveness and fatherhood. Events in The Poisonwood Bible are intrinsically tied to the political upheaval in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, but it alongside the white supremacy that fuels the cottage industry of Christian missionaries to Africa, it also tackles overambitious hubris, responsibility, and culpability.

But what separates a classic from a didactic lesson (“racism is bad, mmmkay?”) is complexity. Your favorite fantasy novel will definitely have an epic good-versus-evil scope. Some will have nuance, with a character who ends up being a turncoat or engaging in morally questionable choices for the greater good, but how many of them will address the complex issues that lead to the rise of evil in the first place, or the kind of evil that is the crushing indifference of a runaway system rather than a tyrannical evil overlord?

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Friday 5: Just Desserts

What’s your favorite breath mint?

I don’t have one. I don’t use breath mints. I drink copious amounts of tea in the mornings, before I go anywhere or meet anyone, and hope that covers up anything objectionable.

What’s your favorite chewing gum?

I was partial to Wrigley’s when I was a kid. I tended to chew at least two sticks at once, and had a habit of just popping in another stick once the flavor ran out. Inspired by Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (not intended as a role model, I’m sure), one time I actually stuck one of those two- or three-stick wads behind my ear. It’s not as convenient as Roald Dahl makes it sound.

What do you like on an ice cream sundae?

Jimmies and crumbled cookies! I don’t really care for whipped cream, chocolate syrup, or cherries.

What do you put honey on?

I save honey for my tea when I have a cold.

Where do you go for a good muffin?

I’m rather fond of Espresso House’s Choco Fours, even though I am ambivalent at best about Espresso House.

Book Review: Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life

I make the best effort I can to read at least one non-fiction book every month. I think there is always benefit and enjoyment to be had in learning about the world around you (or, in the case of history books, the world before you), and it also is an important part of maintaining my chops as an editor, something like unofficial continuing professional development.

The cover "Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extranordinary Life." The title is set within the famous "Whistler's Mother" painting, to the left of the sitting woman.
Image courtesy Yale University Press
 Author: Daniel E. Sutherland & Georgia Toutziari
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33
Language scaling: C2+
Summary: The biography of Anna McNeill Whistler, mother of the modernist painter James McNeill Whistler and the woman in the portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1., known colloquially as “Whistler’s Mother.”
Recommended audience: Those interested in art history, nineteenth century American history, or feminist history.
In-depth thoughts: Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler’s Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.
Like other, more historical non-fiction I’ve received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it’s from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna’s own correspondence. This is part of the reason I would grade the language as highly as I do: this is correspondence that is 150 years old, give or take a decade.
But for anyone with a committed interest in the subjects I mentioned earlier (art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens), it may be a read that is worth the work.
*in exchange for this review