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

My Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2017, According to GoodReads

I enjoy GoodReads’s little “Your Year in Books” widget they roll out at the end of every year, but my favorite thing to look back on at the close of a year (or more accurately, the beginning of every new one) is how many 5-star books I read. That was only four in 2015In 2016, I handed out only five. I was a little luckier (or maybe a little more generous?) in 2017 and handed out eight. Seven if you don’t count a re-read of one of my favorite childhood books.

This year I’m splitting the nonfiction and the novels into two different posts. Part of it is because I have slightly different criteria for 5-star reviews in fiction and nonfiction, and part of it is because I read enough 5-star books this year that a single post dedicated to all of them would border on unwieldy. This first installment covers the best nonfiction I read in 2017.

Politics and Social Justice

The cover of Kate Moore's "Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Women"

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore. I had already known about the radium dial-painting disaster as a footnote in the history of radium and nuclear science, so I was glad to see the topic get its own full treatment. The radium dial companies’ continuing priority of profits over worker health, and their subsequent refusal to accept blame for so much suffering and to make it right, remains relevant today, nearly 100 years later. Moore’s research is exhaustive, which can sometimes make for overwhelming reading, but it all deserves to be chronicled.*

The cover of Sarah Kendzior's "The View from Flyover Country," featuring a view of the St. Louis Arch through a window.

The View From Flyover Country: Essays by Sarah Kendzior, Sarah Kendzior. I enjoy her writing for De Correspondent, so I bought an ecopy of this essay collection (predating the 2016 election) to have  as subway reading.


Black and white cover of May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude," a shot of an empty desk light by a lamp from outside a window.
Image courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton. Walden was one of my favorite books I read in high school, and one that deeply influenced me. With the account of Thoreau’s stay in the woods fresh in my mind, I picked up this up at a library sale years ago. But much as I wanted to read it, I somehow dropped off after a few pages every time I attempted until I read it during my trip to the US this summer. Maybe it was a question of needing enough time to get into it; maybe it was a question of age or life path. But I’m so glad I hung on to this book through countless library down sizes.


The cover of John Kerstetter's "Crossings," featuring bullets and scalpel in an "X" shape.
Image courtesy Crown Publishing, Inc.

Crossings: A Doctor-Solider’s Story, Jon Kerstetter. Kerstetter’s account of growing up on, then off, then on an Oneida reservation to become a doctor and then a medic in the US army until he suffered a stroke (an aspect of his life curiously absent from the subtitle or marketing text) is gripping and sometimes heart-rending reading.*

A cover of Ester Blenda Nrdström's "Amerikanskt," featuring a college of vintage photographs, including a young woman in denim overalls and a white bucket hat.
Image courtesy Bokhåll.

Amerikanskt, Ester Blenda Nordström. Much like America Day by Day, I found this account of Nordström’s travels throughout the United States in the 1920s fascinating, both as a snapshot of an America long gone by and also as the perspective of an outsider and first-time visitor.

Part 2, featuring the best novels I read last year, coming later this week!

*indicates ebook copies I received free of charge from NetGalley in exchange for a review; reviews were already posted elsewhere and I genuinely loved these books.

Review: Crossings

I’m interrupting what would ordinarily be a chronological accounting of the books I’ve read to talk about Crossings, which I just finished a week ago. I’m skipping ahead partially because it was a NetGalley book and I like to be immediate with those reviews and partially because I had a lot of thoughts about it.

Cover for Crossings by Jon Kerstetter
Image courtesy Penguin Random House

Author: Jon Kerstetter

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.24 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: Kerstetter’s journey as a doctor, a combat medic, and a stroke survivor

Content warning: Kerstetter was a combat medic in Iraq and, before that, an NGO-affiliated volunteer doctor in war zones in Rwanda and Kosovo. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in either of those positions. Expect frank descriptions of gore, injuries and deaths.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works (Kerstetter originally hails from the Oneida nation); readers interested in memoirs; readers interested in the military; readers interested in neurology

In-depth thoughts: I originally requested Crossings from NetGalley because I was in the middle of working on a memoirs project and thought that it would be beneficial to read something else in the genre.

I was also, to be entirely honest, inherently put off by the book based on its content, as a more-or-less pacifist. Ironically enough, that also tilted me towards requesting Crossings, because I think it’s important to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with you. It forces you to critically examine your own beliefs and principles, it builds empathy, and it broadens your understanding of the world. While I can’t say that I now understand the appeal of going into combat or the thrill of engaging the enemy, I at least understand how it was appealing for Kerstetter. Even though the war memoirs were my least favorite part, they were still engaging.

What I found the most powerful, however, was everything that came after Kerstetter’s tours in Iraq: his stroke and the possibility of recovery. Kerstetter gives a clear account of the cognitive impairments resulting from his stroke and also his frustration with them. Here he was, someone who had always loved reading and literature, who had gone through university and then medical school, now struggling to make it through children’s books. War might not be anything I’ll ever be able to relate to, but the effect that old age or an accident might have on my mental capacities is something that gnaws at me.

As America (and other nations) continue to cope with the metaphorical fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts like Kerstetter’s will become invaluable as far as the domestic effects are concerned. How could we have better taken care of troops while they were in combat? How can we erase the stigma of PTSD? Can we better acclimate soldiers to their own crossings: from civilian to solider and then back again?

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I borrowed this book from a friend. She thought to recommend it to me on the basis of the footnotes (long story), not knowing that I’m also a huge nerd for Ada Lovelace. I mean, I’m pretty obviously a huge nerd generally and she knew that much when she let me borrow it; I mean a nerd for Lovelace and the Analytical Engine specifically.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Image courtesy Sydney Padua and Pantheon

Author: Sydney Padua

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.05 stars

Language scaling: B1 / C1

Plot summary: In this lighthearted steampunk alternative history, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage build a working model of the Analytical Engine and go on adventures.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans; graphic novel fans; those interested in the history of modern computing.

In-depth thoughts: There are two language gradings above; it depends on whether you include all of the primary sources and quotes that Padua provides in the footnotes, in the appendices, and (occasionally) in the dialogue in the comic itself. Padua’s contemporary English will probably be more familar and easier for EFL readers to grasp than quotes taken from Victorian-era sources. As a native speaker who is a huge fan of thorough, clearly cited research, I appreciate all of those quotes and sources; EFL writers might find that trying to read through some of those sections is too difficult.

If any of the language gets too complicated, though, you can give yourself a break and enjoy Padua’s adorable art.

ArmchairBEA, Day 1: Introduction

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

The first prompt is, as usual, a simple introduction prompt. In case you wanted to know more than what’s on my About Me page!

I am . . .

Most basically, I’m an American expat in Stockholm who cobbles together a living from freelance editing and EFL tutoring. I don’t see the fields as discrete; rather, they interact with and reinforce each other.

Currently . . .

I’ve just wrapped up lessons with three different students, just in time for me to pick up work on two (rather large) editing projects.

I love . . .

I love giving people the tools they need to articulate themselves. This is where editing and tutoring overlap, and it’s the best part of both jobs for me.

I also used to work in a jewelry-making supplies store, and incidentally that was my favorite part of that job as well. Only I was helping people articulate themselves through a very different medium!

On a less career/aspirational level, I love being outside in the sunshine (and being at home in the rain), reading, a good cup of tea, and Korean food.

My favorite . . .

My favorite Korean dish is budae jjigae (a spicy stew that includes assorted American-style meats), my favorite tea is Söderte, and choosing my favorite book would be like choosing a favorite child. You can read about my favorite books according to GoodReads, if you’re curious about my tastes.

My least favorite . . .

My least favorite precious gem is the diamond. Controversial opinion time, I guess! But even if they weren’t an ethical nightmare, I would still be unimpressed. I’ve seen properly cut, high-quality quartz that has the same sparkle and flash as a diamond. And that’s not even including Herkimer diamonds.

My least favorite book is equally hard to choose, but out of a field of mediocre reads, one that stands out is Rabbit, Run. I’m not a big Updike fan.

My current read . . .

Oh, so many! I have two that I’m reading for group obligations:  Madonna in a Fur Coat for my Internet book club and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my in-person critique group. I’ve also borrowed The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage from a critique group friend, a book that is relevant to my interests as well as my ongoing writing project. Finally, my Swedish book of the moment is Karin Boye’s Kris.

My summer plans . . .

I’ll be traveling to the US in August for a wedding.

My buddy . . .

My buddy Aaron is the one getting married! Here we are in Beijing during Lunar New Year 2010:

Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2009
Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2010

He’s conversant, if not fluent, in (Mandarin) Chinese, and when I touched down in Beijing on the evening before Lunar New Year, he put that Chinese to good use finding us a place to eat. All of the restaurants anywhere near our hostel had been closed all day, or closed early. When we got here, they initially turned us away, too, but he finally switched to Chinese and explained that it was my first night in Beijing, and that I had just flown in from Seoul without any dinner. Either his Chinese, my sad story, or both convinced them to let us in, and we shared a huge company meal, complete with alcohol and dancing.

And now he’s getting married!

My blog/channel/social media . . .

The other place on social media where you can find me is on Twitter (@KobaEnglish). I would rather eat rusty nails than start a video channel.

The best . . .

The best part of this trip will definitely be seeing so many of my friends in the US who can’t take the time (or spend the money) to come see me in Stockholm.

Friday 5: Over/Under

What’s a film you consider overrated, and what’s a related or similar film you consider underrated?

This is actually a conversation I like to have with people. It’s interesting to see when people’s opinions diverge from the generally given consensus. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this conversation with people, though.

The first answer that comes up for me is the Sam Raimi Spider-man movie. There was a lot of buzz about it when it first came out, so I went in with high hopes. Something just never clicked with me, though, and I left the theater feeling disappointed.

If I had to go with an underrated superhero movie (since we’re in the genre), that’s a little tougher. So I’ll cheat and branch out a little bit, and say that some of my favorite movies are maybe in danger of becoming underrated or unknown. I’m a huge fan of The Marx Brothers, Vincent Price, and Gene Kelly (also major props to Donald O’Connor, an equally talented dancer who had the rotten luck of not being as handsome as Gene Kelly). It’s good to appreciate the old as well as the new.

I will say this, though: of old things, I think The Three Stooges are fantastically overrated.

What’s overrated about the area in which you live, and what’s underrated about it?

I’m not sure what’s overrated about Stockholm? But I don’t think a lot of people realize how many (free!) museums there are in Stockholm, as well as festivals, concerts, and events. It has all of the culture of New York City, but with a fraction of the population.

Whose talent or skill is overrated, and whose is underrated?

This is a tricky one. I think I’ll say that the concept of “talent” itself is overrated, as it leads to so much self-defeat. It takes a lot of work to get good at something, and if you just rely on focusing on what’s easy the first time around, “you’re gonna have a bad time.”

I think people underrate the value of a good copyeditor, but I might just be biased. 😉

What item in the supermarket is overrated, and what’s underrated?

I will never be able to enjoy bacon the same way the rest of the world does. I can choke it down if I accidentally end up with some in a meal somewhere, but I’m still quite likely to pick it out. Nor have I ever developed a taste for coffee or fizzy drinks.

As for underrated, for years I labored under the false notion that cottage cheese was bland, boring diet food. I don’t know if that’s still the reputation it has today, but I’d like the record to show that cottage cheese is delicious.

What’s utterly terrific except for one or two things?

A few years ago, I read Jennifer Ouellette’s The Calculus Diaries. As a humanities student trying to (belatedly) make peace with STEM, it was right up my alley, and overall I really enjoyed it. Except! In one of the chapters, she repeats the apocryphal story about ancient Rome and post-festivity vomitoriums. Ancient Rome had vomitoriums, but they weren’t special rooms for vomiting after a particularly large meal; they were (and are) just exits in large public buildings like stadiums or amphitheaters.

Book Review: The Radium Girls: The Dark History of America’s Shining Women

I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout, a book I read a few years ago. Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that’s largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn’t go into much detail about it. I didn’t think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March’s play These Shining Lives.

Author: Kate Moore

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4.35 stars

Language scaling: B2/C1+

Recommended audience: Readers interested in the early 20th century American labor movement, women’s history, or the history of radium and radioactivity.

Content warning: While it’s only brief parts of the book, Moore does not mince words to describe the effects of radium poisoning on the women in question.

The cover of Kate Moore's "Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Women"

In-depth thoughts: I wavered between 4 and 5 stars for this book. The story is harrowing and written well overall, but at some points all of the information becomes more overwhelming than anything else. Moore also has a tic of spending a lot of time on the physical description of almost everyone involved; as someone who relates strongly to descriptions of aphantasia, it’s not surprising that I would not find detailed descriptions of people’s appearances compelling. Other readers will no doubt appreciate Moore’s dedication to making these stories as real as possible. Finally, the Kindle version had some display and formatting errors, mostly based around the small-caps font used for the newspaper headlines and photos (there weren’t any).

In the end I decided on 5 stars because I think my issues were with the formatting rather than the content, and because I think everyone should read this book.

I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That’s a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It’s one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman’s comp case take a few years. It’s another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you’re dying of cancer.

The radium corporations insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman’s compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn’t poisonous at all.

People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading. It serves as both an inspiration and a warning.

Book Review: Both Flesh and Not

The posts here have been very book-heavy recently. While I don’t feel I should, exactly, apologize for that, I feel like I should at least explain it. I did a surprise burst of reading at the end of last year and have been trying to get on top of it now so that my posts for the rest of the year won’t just be catch-up or weirdly untimely (seems a bit pointless to have a GoodReads round-up post in March). The alternative is to not feature my reading here at all, but 1) I feel that my reading, both for fun and for professionalism, is relevant to what I do and 2) I like talking about books.

In that vein, here is the first book I finished in 2017.

Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company

Author: David Foster Wallace

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.85 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Recommended audience: Pop culture junkies, word aficionados, recovering pedants, English nerds

In-depth thoughts: I received this book as part of my book club’s end-of-year book swap, which made for a very pleasant surprise in the mail! Anyone who pokes around my GoodReads profile can see right away that David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers—a friend recommended him to me as we both (that is: both Wallace and I) were English/philosophy double majors in college, which I guess is a flimsy reason to like an author; presumably this friend also recommended Wallace because of his brilliant writing, which is a much more solid reason to like an author. Somehow, despite my near-obsession, I never got around to buying this posthumous collection for myself (or even learning of its existence).

More Flesh Than Not is probably more appropriate for English lovers than it is for English students. One can be both, of course, but you really need a borderline unhealthy love for the language to enjoy Wallace’s dense, complex, and sometimes highly stylized writing. Professional language regulators (that is to say: editors, teachers, etc.) might find “Twenty-Four Word Notes” of interest, where Wallace lets his inner pedant have full rein. “The Nature of the Fun” offers solace and something like comfort (maybe) to fellow writers. And anyone who loves reading—like maybe chronically, dysfunctionally, really really loves—will surely appreciate Wallace’s ability to get to the heart of a book in his reviews and to give works the serious look they deserve, from short-form reviews (“Mr. Cogito” and “Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960”) to in-depth and quite frankly multidisciplinary framings (“The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama”), and anything in between (“Borges On the Couch” and “The Best of the Prose Poem.”)

Finally, this collection uses selections from Wallace’s own word list (assembled while he was working on the Oxford English dictionary) as something like illustrations? section breaks? between each essay. Whether you find that charming or a gimmick depends on taste, I suppose. I fall in the former camp. There’s something very intimate and personal about a glimpse into the words that someone found fascinating, confusing, or anything else necessitating a dictionary consultation. It’s an appropriate touch and I appreciate it.


My Favorite Books of 2016, According to GoodReads

A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!

On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.

Travel Memoirs

1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman

Image courtesy University of California Press

Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.


2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad

Image courtesy Fons Vitae

The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.


Science Writing

3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*

Image courtesy Broadway Books

The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.

4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*

Image courtesy Ignatius Brady

In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.


5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Image courtesy Orbit Books

Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)

There you have it! My best books of 2016. What were yours? Comment or tweet @KobaEnglish!

*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.