Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future by James Shapiro

Shakespeare in a Divided America

Information

Goodreads: Shakespeare in a Divided America
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

From leading scholar James Shapiro, a timely exploration of what Shakespeare’s plays reveal about our divided land, from Revolutionary times to the present day.

Read at school by almost every student, staged in theaters across the land, and long highly valued by both conservatives and liberals alike, Shakespeare’s plays are rare common ground in the United States. For well over two centuries now, Americans of all stripes–presidents and activists, writers and soldiers–have turned to Shakespeare’s works to address the nation’s political fault lines, such as manifest destiny, race, gender, immigration, and free speech. In a narrative arching across the centuries, James Shapiro traces the unparalleled role of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tragedies and comedies in making sense of so many of these issues on which American identity has turned. Reflecting on how Shakespeare has been invoked–and at times weaponized–at pivotal moments in our past, Shapiro takes us from President John Quincy Adams’s disgust with Desdemona’s interracial marriage to Othello, to Abraham Lincoln’s and his assassin John Wilkes Booth’s competing obsessions with the plays, up through the fraught debates over marriage and same-sex love at the heart of the celebrated adaptations Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare in Love. His narrative culminates in the 2017 controversy over the staging of Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated.

Extraordinarily researched, Shakespeare in a Divided America shows that no writer has been more closely embraced by Americans, or has shed more light on the hot-button issues in our history. Indeed, it is by better understanding Shakespeare’s role in American life, Shapiro argues, that we might begin to mend our bitterly divided land.

Star Divider

Review

In Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro invites readers to a deeper understanding of how Shakespeare has been received in America, and how his plays have been understood, performed, and mobilized for various political, social, and cultural causes throughout the history of the nation. This engaging survey will appeal to both avid Shakespeare fans and more casual readers, demonstrating how and why the Bard and his works continue to be relevant today.

Chapters include:

  • a look at race and miscegenation through the lens of Othello
  • a look at how gender was perceived in 1845 with an emphasis on gender-bending actress Charlotte Cushman and her performances as Romeo
  • class warfare and the Astor Place riots in 1849
  • John Wilkes Boothe’s and Lincoln’s views on Shakespeare and government and leadership
  • immigration and xenophobia in 1916, with the rise of performances of The Tempest
  • marriage and gender roles through the lens of The Taming of the Shrew and the making of Kiss Me, Kate
  • same-sex love and the making of the movie Shakespeare in Love
  • the political divide in 2017 when a production of Shakespeare in the Park infamously depicted the assassination of a Trump-appearing Julius Caesar.

Rooted explicitly in its own historical moment, written during the rise of Trump, the book repeatedly returns to questions of America’s divisiveness, its inability to reconcile many of its high ideals with its own practices. Through a study of Shakespeare, Shapiro illuminates how the nation has grappled with many of the same issues since its inception, always returning to the Bard not only in an attempt to understand itself and its place in the world, but also as a means to justify various social and political agendas. But perhaps this is no surprise. The issues the U.S. faces are the same ones that Shakespeare and his contemporaries faced.

Part of what makes Shakespeare and his works so compelling, and so open to use by competing political agendas, is that the plays give no easy answers. The final chapter on the 2017 performance of Julius Caesar, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated, perhaps most clearly illustrates how open to interpretation the works are. While the producers of Julius Caesar evidently meant for the performance to shock, to make playgoers think through the actual effects of a political assassination, outraged Republicans saw the performance as a straight invitation for the opposition to resort to violence. But the play itself is ambiguous about this. The play both praises and condemns Brutus. The play both praises and condemns Caesar. In other words, the play can be interpreted any way you like–either as a call to violent political action, or as a cautionary tale about enacting political violence. The play could be co-opted by either side of a political movement. How an audience receives the play says more about the audience than it says about the play.

And this is the whole premise of the book: Shakespeare illuminates America and how Americans perceive themselves. One of the most interesting chapters (for me) was the chapter on the 1849 Astor Place riots, rooted in the professional rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor William Macready. Their interpretations of Shakespearean roles lead to the working class followers of Forrest rising up against the wealthier supporters of Macready. (Tensions were exacerbated by the construction of a theatre meant clearly only to welcome the rich at a time when theatre was one of the few places open to the masses.) Attempts to disrupt Macready’s performances ultimately erupted into a full-scale riot as Macready performed Macbeth, leading to at least 22 deaths. The riots say less about Shakespeare than they do about Americans’ perception of their country as one where the rich should not get to shut out the poor, as a place where Shakespeare should be open to all. It is probably fair to say that no one that day died for Shakespeare; they died for their ideals, which Shakespeare reflected back to them.

Shakespeare in a Divided America is not a book merely for readers passionate about Shakespeare. Its engaging writing style, combined with gripping history, makes it an excellent choice for readers who enjoy social history or even readers who just enjoy a well-written nonfiction. It certainly makes Shakespeare a lot more exciting than your English class probably did.

4 stars

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien ed. by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the full schedule of events by clicking here.


Perilous and Fair book photo

Information

Goodreads: Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2015

Official Summary

Since the earliest scholarship on The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, critics have discussed how the works of J. R. R. Tolkien seem either to ignore women or to place them on unattainable pedestals. To remedy such claims that Tolkien’s fiction has nothing useful or modern to say about women, Perilous and Fair focuses critical attention on views that interpret women in Tolkien’s works and life as enacting essential, rather than merely supportive roles.

Perilous and Fair includes seven classic articles as well as seven new examinations of women in Tolkien’s works and life. These fourteen articles bring together perspectives not only on Tolkien’s most commonly discussed female characters—Éowyn, Galadriel, and Lúthien—but also on less studied figures such as Nienna, Yavanna, Shelob, and Arwen. Among others, the collection features such diverse critical approaches and methods as literary source study, historical context, feminist theory, biographical investigation, close-reading textual analysis, Jungian archetypes, and fanfiction reader-response.

Star Divider

Review

Overall, this collection is essential reading for anyone who loves Tolkien, and it will provide some eye-opening arguments for anyone who thinks Tolkien’s women are flat or his portrayals are sexist. The authors consistently offer evidence that while, of course, Tolkien would not have held the views of a 21st-century feminist, the women in his books are nuanced and powerful and generally subvert gender expectations rather than fulfill them. Tolkien was also a champion of women academics in his personal life, and we have no evidence to suggest he didn’t like or respect women.

Here are some brief thoughts on the individual essays:

“The History of Scholarship on Female Characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium: A Feminist Bibliographic Essay” by Robin Anne Reid

This essay lists feminist articles about Tolkien’s work, beginning in the 1970s (when there were only two) and continuing to 2013, right before Perilous and Fair was published. Reid summarizes the articles and gives readers an idea of what feminist Tolkien scholarship has looked like and where it might go, but I admit I’d probably find this bibliography much more useful if I were planning to do some research myself. For pure reading value, this is mildly interesting, but I think it can be skipped unless you actually want to go read some of the articles listed.

“The Missing Women: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lifelong Support for Women’s Higher Education” by John D. Rateliff

I understand what this essay is doing. The idea that Tolkien was mired in a nearly all-male world (and that he preferred it that way) in ingrained in many people’s understanding of Tolkien and his life. Rateliff even quotes parts of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography that argue explicitly this point- and this may be why so many people believe it, since Carpenter’s biography is generally considered the definitive one. However, it’s still a bit funny that, in order to correct this misconception and demonstrate that Tolkien knew women and was even a staunch supporter of them academically when others weren’t (coughLewiscough), Rateliff found it necessary to comb letters, archives, and people’s personal memories in order to make a list of every time Tolkien ever interacted with a woman.

“She-who-must-not-be-ignored: Gender and Genre in The Lord of the Rings and the Victorian Boys’ Book” by Sharin Schroeder

An interesting comparison between Tolkien’s work and the “boys’ book” genre that early critics dismissively accused The Lord of the Rings belonging to. It seems weird today that anyone would accuse LotR of being a children’s book and I don’t 100% see the need any longer for people to “defend” Tolkien’s work. However, Schroeder does go beyond that to explain how gender in LotR compares to that in popular Victorian boys’ books and touches briefly on some books Tolkien might have been familiar with or read in his own youth. It focuses heavily on She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (as it’s one of the few books Tolkien explicitly mentioned in an interview), which frankly didn’t mean much to me as I’d never heard of the book before.

“The Feminine Principle in Tolkien” by Melanie A. Rawls

An excellent look at masculine and feminine characteristics and Tolkien and the important point that both men and women need to embody both characteristics. (This essay is quoted in a few of the other essays, so definitely an influential piece to pay attention to.)

“Tolkien’s Females and the Defining of Power” by Nancy Enright

Enright explores the power that Tolkien’s women have. She has an interestingly extensive discussion of Arwen, considering many readers write her off as barely even being in The Lord of the Rings.

“Power in Arda: Sources, Uses, and Misuses by Edith L. Crowe

Crowe argues that Tolkien’s works can fit in with some definitions of feminism and also points out the importance of female power and involvement in creation in The Silmarillion. She also makes the intriguing point about how important renunciation of power in Tolkien is and how not killing plays such as important role, rare in modern fantasies.

“The Fall and Repentance of Galadriel” by Romuald I. Lakowski

This is one of those essays that really highlights how much Tolkien revised his writing and how much was never fully resolved. There are different versions of Galadriel’s story, but the only things we can say for certain about her are in The Lord of the Rings because otherwise Tolkien was constantly revising his material concerning her. However, this is an insightful look at what we do know and what different information would mean for readers’ interpretations of her character and her power.

Cami D. Agan, “Lúthien Tinúviel and Bodily Desire in the Lay of Leithian”

This essay reads into silences in the text and asks, “How then might it affect the text to assume that Lúthien and Beren consummate their love in the forest?” (172). This is not my favorite approach to literary criticism (How would it affect the text to assume something happens that readers have no direct evidence actually happens?), but Agan still manages to make interesting arguments about Lúthien’s power and how it’s tied up with her body. Personally, I haven’t read Lúthien’s story recently, and I would like to be more familiar with it to have any stronger opinions on this essay.

“The Power of Pity and Tears: The Evolution of Nienna in the Legendarium” by Kristine Larsen

Nienna is another figure I’m not 100% familiar with, but this look at the value of pity and tears is convincing, and of course one can see the importance of pity in The Lord of the Rings, as well. Larsen also discusses whether pity is considered a particularly feminine trait and what that might mean.

If this topic interests you, you can check out one of our previous guest posts, “She Who Weeps:” The Value of Sorrow in Tolkien.

“At Home and Abroad: Éowyn’s Two-fold Figuring as War Bride in The Lord of the Rings” by Melissa A. Smith

I dislike assertions that Tolkien’s writing was “influenced” by his wartime experience (though, of course, one’s life experience must imbue one’s creative works in some way), but the argument that Eowyn can be read as a war bride is persuasive and explains things like how quickly she and Faramir develop a romantic relationship. Smith points out that Tolkien seems to acutely understand something of women’s psychology here, what it means to be left behind in war, what it means to fall in love with someone you recently met, etc.

“The Valkyrie Reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Éowyn, and Arwen” by Leslie A. Donovan

This piece stands out in the collection for bringing in Arwen and Shelob, along with Galadriel and Eowyn. I do think the lists of “and this is how Character X has valkyrie characteristics!” went on a bit long for my tastes. (Apparently luminous eyes are notable, and all these characters have descriptions of their eyes?) But the look at how Tolkien might have been influenced by depictions of valkyries is intriguing.

“Speech and Silence in The Lord of the Rings: Medieval Romance and the Transitions of Éowyn” by Phoebe C. Linton

A very good essay looking at Eowyn, as well as what her apparent silences in the book indicate. I think, however, it raises similar points as other essays in the book do, as Eowyn is an obvious subject for a look at “women in Tolkien,” and I probably would have enjoyed this more if I’d read it on its own or if I’d read it first rather than practically last. I can only read the same quotes about Eowyn and what they mean so many times, no matter how interesting I think they are.

“Hidden in Plain View: Strategizing Unconventionality in Shakespeare’s and Tolkien’s Portraits of Women” by Maureen Thum

I’m always on the fence about comparative essays. Thum makes insightful points about the subverting of gender expectations in Twelfth Night and The Lord of the Rings, but I think she could have written two entirely separate essays; the points about Shakespeare don’t really illuminate Tolkien. Additionally, her arguments about Eowyn and Galadriel are convincing but don’t strike me as overly different arguments from other essays in this collection. It’s a fine essay but certainly not my favorite in this book.

“Finding Ourselves in the (Un)Mapped Lands: Women’s Reparative Readings of The Lord of the Rings” by Una McCormack

A good look at Tolkien fan fiction and the way women authors have chosen to write themselves into the story of LotR where they feel they have been excluded. This is interesting from an academic viewpoint, but I can’t say it made me particularly curious about reading the fan fiction itself, as McCormack herself admits some of it can be Mary Sue-ish as authors work out how to insert female characters– as female knights, as original side characters, as lovers of existing female characters, etc.

Briana
5 stars

Money Hacks: 275+ Ways to Decrease Spending, Increase Savings, and Make Your Money Work for You! by Lisa Rowan

Money Hacks

Information

Goodreads: Money Hacks
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 2020

Official Summary

Achieve all of your financial goals with these 300 easy solutions to all your personal finance questions—from paying off your student loans to managing investments.

Are you looking for ways to decrease your spending…and start increasing your savings? Need some simple advice for maximizing your investments? Want to start planning for your retirement but don’t know where to start? It’s now easier than ever to achieve all your financial goals!

Many people are afraid to talk about money, which means that you might be missing some of the best money-saving skills out there! In Money Hacks you will learn the basics of your finances so you can start making every penny count. Whether you’re trying to pay down debt, start an emergency fund, or make the smartest choice on a major purchase, this book is chock-full of all the useful hacks to make your money work for you in every situation! 

Star Divider

Review

*Note: I saw a Goodreads review mention this is geared towards American readers, and that’s correct. While the general money-saving tips would be applicable to anyone, the parts about student loans, mortgages, retirement accounts, etc. are definitely country-specific.

This is a difficult book for me to review, in part because I’ve read a few financial 101 books in the past years, so (finally!) much of of this is not new to me. The fun of the book is that it really is just 275+ tips, each just a couple pages long. So it’s not an in-depth look at things like 401(k)s vs. Roth IRAs but rather quick suggestions about how to get the most out of your money.

The book is divided into a few parts, focused on saving, managing debt, and investing for the future. While I absolutely do think there is good information in here, a lot of it just wasn’t applicable to me. For instance, the obvious money-saving hacks are irrelevant to me: I don’t even drink coffee much less purchase a cup daily, I don’t have Amazon Prime, I don’t subscribe to Netflix, I don’t purchase my work lunch at restaurants, I don’t actually buy that many books, etc. I’m sure there are places I could cut spending, and that’s probably worth thinking about, but there’s also a point where I just want to buy a couple books a year and not feel like that’s a “bad financial decision.”

And after the more obvious money-saving tips, things just get weird. The book recommends cleaning your refrigerator coils and freezer vents, for instance, to save money on running your refrigerator. It makes a joke about washing and reusing tin foil to save a few bucks each year on tin foil. (Actually, I think a prime opportunity was missed here to suggest not buying single-use things in general; good for your wallet and the environment!). I don’t think the book is wrong about these tips, but readers will have to decide how much saving a few pennies here and there is worth doing these things.

The chapters on debt management and investing were interesting, but I do think I’ve gotten a better overview of these topics from other books. A “quick tip” about your retirement fund could be confusing to a reader who doesn’t know much about retirement funds in the first place, and someone who does know a lot might not need these helpful suggestions of “max out your contribution that your employer will match” and “make sure you are vested before leaving a company.”

Finally, there is a section on making more money–which is where I always end up personally. There comes a point where it gets ridiculous to cut out everything you are buying and you might just need to make more money, which is often easier said than done. And I do think some of the tips here are hit-or-miss. So many “side hustles” don’t actually pay a great wage for the time you spend doing them.

So, this is book is somewhat interesting. It’s a very quick read based on the format. If you want some suggestions for how to save some money here and there and maybe manage your debt a little better or start investing a bit more, it’s worth a read. I’m struggling to think of which tips I personally will be implementing, but that doesn’t mean the tips aren’t helpful to other people.

3 Stars
Briana

Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is thrill-of-the-chaste.jpg

Information

Goodreads: Thrill of the Chaste
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Summary

Valerie Weaver-Zercher examines the appeal of Amish romance novels. Who writes them? Who read them? And why are they suddenly so popular?

Star Divider

Review

Let me begin by admitting that I have never read an Amish romance fiction. Nor have I read much Christian fiction, aside from the 1967 Christy by Catherine Marshall. Still, I recognize that the Amish have an imaginative hold over many in the U.S. and, when I learned about Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s book exploring the appeal of Amish romance fiction, I knew I wanted to read it. What is it, after all, that has lead so many evangelical Christian writers and readers to immerse themselves in the lives of the Amish? And how accurate are these books, anyway? And what do the Amish themselves think of this proliferation of Amish literature? Weaver-Zercher sets out to answer these questions with a down-to-earth writing style that will draw in even readers who do not normally indulge in literary criticism.

There is a lot to unpack in the history of the Amish romance novel, but Weaver-Zercher makes a heroic effort to trace the rise of the form from its roots to the present day, explaining the ways in which these novels have represented the Amish and perhaps why. Interestingly, while some early novels depicted the Amish as the ignorant, subjugated Other, a series of people to be condemned and avoided, modern-day novels do not always depict the Amish as glowingly or respectfully as one might think.

In fact, since most Amish romance novels are written by evangelical Christian white women for evangelical Christian white women, some of these books suggest that the Amish are oppressed by their rules and tradition, are not saved, and are in need of an evangelical “born again” moment. Weaver-Zercher even quotes a popular author of Amish romance who stated that the Amish “are not Christians.” Weaver-Zercher’s assessment is that these books allow evangelical authors to reject their fundamentalist roots (represented usually by the “oppressive” Ordnung and a mean bishop) and celebrate a more individualistic experience and understanding of Christianity.

In addition to trying to create sympathetic heroines by making them more evangelical them Amish, many authors also try to navigate a desire for the simple life (represented by farm land and buggies) with their desire for modernity by depicting their heroines as leaving their communities for more progressive Amish communities or for the Mennonites. These types of narratives indicate how authors and readers are drawn to an idea of Amish-ness that seems idyllic, slower-paced, free from the trouble of modern life. At the same time, however, they may see the Amish as too strict and unrealistic, in need of bending the rules a little to be truly admirable or relatable.

After tracing the history of the Amish romance and its current manifestations, Weaver-Zercher explores reader response to the books. Her findings are perhaps not surprising. A large number of readers enjoy the books because they are “clean,” they reinforce and reaffirm their religious values in a hostile world, and they allow readers to create relationships with each other as they discuss the personal and religious journeys of the heroines. The response here is very interesting to me, as the women Weaver-Zercher interviews clearly enjoy Amish romance and find it valuable, even though many people might dismiss the romance novel as poorly-written, trite, and frivolous. The women, however, feel affirmed in seeing their own experiences (troubled marriages, miscarriages, etc.) reflected back to them. These books, then, often seem to deal with “women’s issues” that more respected books, authors, and genres may overlook.

But what do the Amish think of these books? is the question Weaver-Zercher said she got the most while doing her research. It is admittedly a question I always wanted to know the answer to. Weaver-Zercher’s interviews suggest that the Amish have varying opinions, just like everyone else. Some love reading them. Some like seeing characters “like them” (even though Weaver-Zercher notes only one Amish author writing Amish fiction). Some think the books are trash. And some worry that their community will be destroyed by books that depict their rules and religion as overbearing and oppressive. The books celebrate a personal conversion experience that the Amish, as a more community-oriented religion, would probably reject as too individualistic and emotional. At least one bishop Weaver-Zercher spoke to noted that he fear the books would cause Amish readers to drift away from what makes them Amish.

With all this covered, that leaves the questions of how accurately Amish romance novels depict the Amish, and whether non-Amish should get to write them, and profit off the Amish. Weaver-Zercher is pretty generous here. She notes some major areas writers get wrong, like suggesting the bishop is in charge of everyone and tells them what to do (the Ordnung is more community-based) or writing that the Amish trade young men around communities to keep the gene pool diverse (they don’t). Otherwise, however, she seems to accept that writers of Amish fiction mean well, even when they get things wrong. And she wonders if fiction writers really need to be 100% accurate. Do readers care if they sprinkle fake Pennsylvania Dutch words in among the dialogue? Or are readers looking for something besides cultural accuracy?

Weaver-Zercher also leaves it kind of open-ended as to whether non-Amish should get to write Amish fiction. Most writers try to get some “credibility” by claiming everything from having Amish or Mennonite relatives to living in Lancaster county, but the end result is that they probably cannot fully depict what it means to be Amish having never experienced it. Weaver-Zercher, however, does not judge the writers or the readers too harshly, instead focusing on what Amish fiction means to them.

Thrill of the Chaste is a well-researched book, delving into the historical, cultural, and religious roots of the Amish romance novel to try to discover the reason for its extraordinary popularity. The book is written with a light touch, and many personal stories from Weaver-Zercher, making it accessible, even to those may normally shy away from non-fiction as being too difficult or dry.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is krysta-64.png
4 stars

Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg

Inconspicuous Consumption

Information

Goodreads: Inconspicuous Consumption
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

How much energy is used by an internet search? Does cotton really have a lower environmental impact than synthetic materials? Have ride shares lowered or raised our collective carbon footprint? Tatiana Schlossberg delves into the environmental impact we have every day, whether we realize it or not.

Star Divider

Review

Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg attempts to draw attention to the everyday areas in which we consume goods, use energy, and impact the environment. Though some readers may already be aware of many of the issues raised–microplastics in the ocean from our synthetic fabrics, the carbon footprint of eating meat and dairy, the destruction of global forests to fuel our lifestyles–Schlossberg provides value by digging a little deeper into issues that may have puzzled readers.

For instance, is it less impactful to stream a movie or to buy the physical DVD? Have ride shares actually decreased traffic and pollution as promised, or have they raised both? Is buying cotton clothing actually a more environmentally-friendly choice than buying synthetic materials? Schlossberg explains how all of our choices have an impact on the earth, often making it difficult for consumers to figure out what they should do.

Schlossberg’s book is refreshing in that it admits that consumers alone will never be able to save the planet. The reality is that big corporations have been doing the most polluting, often disproportionately affecting communities of color and people who have the least political protection. So far, most governments have allowed these companies to do as they please, meaning they can make large revenues while passing on the environmental costs (polluted groundwater, increased illnesses and birth defects, etc.) onto their workers and the people who live next to their factories. Companies then claim that they have no responsibility for their actions, that consumers must put pressure on them to do better–even though most companies will never make it easy for consumers to figure out what their environmental policies actually are. It’s depressing to hear, but also a relief that someone is finally acknowledging that we cannot fight our way out of climate change just by turning off our lights and doing less laundry.

Schlossberg admits that the facts of the matter can make the situation seem bleak, but the book’s ultimate argument is that informed consumers can do more to put pressure onto their political representatives and the companies they are currently protecting. Informed consumers will be able to tell when they are being deceived, or being fed “solutions” that are just greenwashing. For real change, we need collective action. Books like Schossberg’s help draw attention to the problem, and hopefully are the start to a real solution.

Star Divider

Fascinating Facts

  • Nearly half of purchases that are returned to the store actually end up in a landfill.
  • It’s believed about 31% of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, though some believe the percentage is higher.
  • Much of the food that goes unharvested is because Americans are unwilling to eat produce that looks “weird,” even if nothing is wrong with it.
  • In Europe, burning wood counts as “carbon neutral,” even though it isn’t. Schlossberg says the U.S. will soon decide the same.
  • About 70% of the world’s e-waste (used or old electronics) is assumed to have been thrown away, as it remains unaccounted for.
  • The Super Bowl causes a disproportionate amount of e-waste from Americans buying upgraded TVs (that they don’t really need) in order to watch the big game.

Little Kid, Big City!: New York City by Beth Beckman and Holley Maher

Little Kid Big City New York book photo

Information

Goodreads: Little Kid, Big City!: New York City
Series: Little Kid, Big City
Source: Review copy from publisher (Quirk Books)
Published: February 1, 2021

Official Summary

If you could have an adventure in New York City, where would you go? Curious readers will find plenty of sights, smells, and tastes to explore in this illustrated pick-your-own-path travel guide series.

Would you walk the Brooklyn Bridge for a huge slice of pizza, see the dazzling lights in Times Square, or visit the whale at the Museum of Natural History? With Little Kid, Big City!: New York you can create your own itinerary by choosing where to go next at the end of every page! Whether you’re an armchair traveler or a real-life tourist, here are dozens of ways to explore iconic sights, venture to nearby locales, and wander off the beaten path. 

In this first book in the Little Kid, Big City series—in which travel guides collide with an interactive format—kids are empowered to imagine, create, and explore their own routes through the world’s greatest cities. Featuring whimsical illustrations, lovable characters, an invaluable resources section, and a foldout map, Little Kid, Big City has everything you need to invent your own adventure! 

Star Divider

Review

Little Kid, Big City!: New York is a whimsically entertaining, yet also useful, guide to the sights of New York City.

The book is formatted as a pick-your-path book, so you can imagine yourself going through a day of touring New York, making choices at each stop. For instance, do you want to check out some of New York’s famous bagels next, or do you want to head to a zoo? This structure makes the book fun to read even if you have absolutely no intention of going to New York City in the near future because you can simply pretend you’re there! (Super useful during COVID-19 but also in general.)

However, the book also has merits as an actual guide to the city. I’ve been to NYC a number of times myself, but the book definitely pointed out places I haven’t gone yet that I’d love to add to my list. And, in addition to the main book, the back includes a list of sites that are near the featured ones, so you can 100% use it as an actual reference guide to help you plan an actual trip. (All suggestions are also kid-friendly, as the title of the book implies, though of course anyone can enjoy them.)

Finally, the book also includes little fun facts about each site, so you can learn interesting tidbits while reading/planning your trip!

I love the formatting of the book and think this is an immensely fun idea for an entire series featuring different cities. (Quirk Books plans to publish a guide to London next.) I definitely recommend it!

Briana
5 stars

The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom by H. W. Brands

Information

Goodreads: The Zealot and the Emancipator
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

From New York Times bestselling historian H. W. Brands, the epic struggle over slavery as embodied by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, two men with radically different views on how moral people must act when their democracy countenances evil.

John Brown was a charismatic and deeply religious man who heard the God of the Old Testament speaking to him, telling him to destroy slavery by any means. In 1854, when Congress opened Kansas territory to slavery, Brown raised a band of followers to wage war against the institution–his men tore proslavery settlers from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Three years later Brown and his men assaulted the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to arm slaves with weapons for the coming race war that would cleanse the nation of slavery once and for all.

Brown’s violence pointed ambitious Illinois lawyer and former office-holder Abraham Lincoln toward a different solution to slavery: politics. A member of the moderate wing of the new, antislavery Republican Party, he spoke cautiously and dreamed big, plotting his path to Washington and perhaps the White House. Yet Lincoln’s caution couldn’t preserve him from the vortex of violence Brown set in motion. Arrested and sentenced to death, Brown’s righteous dignity on the way to the gallows led many in the North to see him as a martyr to liberty. Southerners responded in anger and horror that a terrorist was made into a saint. Lincoln shrewdly threaded the needle of the fracturing country and won election as president, still preaching moderation.

But the time for moderation had passed, and as the nation careened toward war Lincoln would see his central faith, that democracy can resolve its moral crises peacefully, face the ultimate test. Master storyteller H. W. Brands narrates in thrilling fashion how two men confronted America’s gravest scourge in the moments before the nation’s darkest hour.

Star Divider

Review

The Zealot and the Emancipator is a well-researched look at John Brown’s life alongside Abraham Lincoln’s rise to politics and the presidency. The chapters largely alternate between the two men’s biographies, until the moment when John Brown is executed for taking over the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and attempting to start a slave uprising. Then the book continues through Lincoln’s life and presidency. Exactly why H. W. Brands chose to intertwine the stories of these two men is left a little nebulous until the very end, when he contrasts Brown’s decisive, bloody action with Lincoln’s more roundabout approach to ending slavery. The book would have had more direction had the contrasts between the two men been made clearer throughout the whole. Still, The Zealot and the Emancipator is a good book for history lovers who are somewhat new to Brown and Lincoln’s biographies.

While The Zealot and the Emancipator has received its share critical acclaim, I must admit that I found the book to be a rather standard text on the Civil War era. Its interest for me ended up mainly being an extended look at John Brown’s life since I, presumably like many Americans, am mainly familiar with his actions in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, but not with much else. I was intrigued to learn about this fascinating man and the effect he had on others around him, impressing them with his morality and gravity even as he spoke (or hedged about) doing decisive deeds to end the scourge of slavery.

The chapters on Lincoln, in contrast, offered me very little new information on him. I am very familiar with his biography, however, so readers who are not may find more of interest here. I think the greatest strength the book has in this regard is that Brands spends more time than most on chronicling Lincoln’s changing attitudes towards slavery, meticulously noting (usually through extended quotes from Lincoln’s speeches) how Lincoln began as anti-expansionist and ultimately ended with abolition. Brands’ take is largely that Lincoln was a Constitutionalist who believed he had no legal authority to end slavery in the states, but who worked where he could to stop the spread, hoping that this would make slavery die out everywhere. He also worked to end slavery in D.C., where he believed Congress had the legal authority to end it.

Many people today likely won’t be satisfied with Lincoln’s actions, especially since schools tend to suggest Lincoln was an ardent abolitionist, so the revelation that he was really anti-expansionist (politically, not morally) often comes as a real shock. However, I think Brands does a meticulous job explaining Lincoln’s position as a politician, noting the political climate, the need to hold the Republican party together in the face of a fracturing Democratic party, and the strategy to gain votes largely by offending no one (which meant not taking a strong abolitionist stance when such a stance was not popularly supported, even in the North). While Lincoln’s actions and words may seem repugnant to modern audiences, they also worked, catapulting Lincoln to the presidency, where he ultimately did more to end slavery than Brown did with his more direct approach.

The book ends by reflecting on Lincoln’s effectiveness versus Brown’s, making the volume an interesting read on politics, if not very interesting as biography. (The somewhat dry style of the writing combined with the copious quotations from Lincoln’s speech may be off-putting to readers who like their popular historians to be storytellers.) Lincoln as an ambitious, canny politician, willing to say–or not say–things based on their utility to his advancement is not how textbooks tend to depict him, but it is a facet of his life that continues to make him an intriguing historical figure. And Brands does justice to that side of Lincoln, not shielding him from criticism, but doing the historical work to try to figure out why Lincoln said and did what he did. It is a balanced look at Lincoln that puts him into historical context for a new generation of readers.

3 Stars

An Almost Zero Waste Life: Learning How to Embrace Less to Live More by Megean Weldon

An Almost Zero Waste Life

Information

Goodreads: An Almost Zero Waste Life
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Learn how to start taking steps towards a zero-waste lifestyle (meaning you send no garbage to landfills) through practical tips from Megean Weldon, the Zero Waste Nerd.

Star Divider

Review

Megean Weldon’s An Almost Zero Waste Life is a practical beginner’s guide for those seeking to reduce their plastic use, their carbon footprint, and their overall consumption. Organized into sections such as kitchen, bathroom, shopping and wardrobe, children and pets, housekeeping, and holidays, the book takes readers through a series of steps that encourage them to rethink their habits without shaming them for their lifestyles. The overall message is that it is important to think about our impact on the environment, but no one should feel guilty about not being perfect. Doing something for the environment is better than doing nothing. This upbeat attitude permeates the book, making readers feel like change is really possible.

The book begins with a brief overview of why reducing our consumption, especially of single use plastics, is so important. Most plastic, Weldon explains, never actually gets recycled and even the plastic that does has a limited lifespan before it ends up in the environment to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. The information is admittedly general, but Weldon probably assumes (reasonably) that the majority of people who pick up a book on going zero waste already know about the environmental crisis we’re facing–and want to do something about it. So this is not the book to learn more about the environmental nightmare that is plastic. It’s a how-to guide on taking personal responsibility for the environmental factors we have some control over.

Weldon takes a practical approach to going zero waste, noting that it is perfectly okay to finish using all the products you have in your house before going out to buy a bunch of fancy new zero waste and no plastic products. Part of reducing consumption is, after all, not simply tossing usable items we already own. She then goes on to encourage readers to rethink what they “need,” to downsize their lives, and then to begin thinking about ways to go plastic free.

The zero waste lifestyle is, Weldon admits, not necessarily easy for everyone. She acknowledges, for instance, that buying in bulk is not always cheaper. So she offers modified tips for various scenarios, noting that if you are not ready to go to your local grocery store with your own glass jar, you can at least consider buying products in paper packages rather than plastic. Weldon never shames readers for not living up to her ideal, but tries to give a way for everyone to participate in being a little greener.

A lot of the tips Weldon offers will likely be common sense to many. And, of course, readers could probably find the same information online: Stop using plastic shopping bags. Start carrying reusable produce bags. Skip the straw. Use bar soap and shampoo rather than products bottled in plastic. Cut up old cotton T-shirts for rags instead of buying paper towels. Consider composting. Still, it is handy to have all these tips organized in one place. And readers may also appreciate that Weldon adds her recipes for things like homemade deodorant, shampoo, and shaving cream (for those who want to try).

I think the greatest benefit the book offers is to make people rethink the products they buy. Much of what we consume (especially in the U.S.!) is avoidable. We don’t really need to buy as much as we do, and we certainly don’t need to buy as many disposable, one-use plastics as we do. The good news, Weldon notes, is that phasing out these things not only helps the environment, but also can save us money long term. And she is adamant that consumers should use their money to “vote” for green products over harmful ones.

An Almost Zero Waste Life is an excellent, inspirational guide to the zero waste lifestyle for beginners. It makes aspiring towards a zero waste lifestyle seem not only achievable, but also desirable. Some may see zero waste as just another internet trend. But, hopefully, books like this will make everyone start thinking a little more about their consumer practices.

4 stars

Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution by Misciel Roscam Abbing

Plastic Soup

Information

Goodreads: Plastic Soup
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Review

Plastic Soup provides a concise overview of the plastic crisis facing the world today, exploring everything from the way in which plastics end up in landfills, oceans, and even the air we breathe, to the ways in which plastics are affecting the health of wildlife and of humans. Anyone who is uncertain about why single-use plastic has become such a big concern, or who wants to learn more so they can speak knowledgeably on the subject, should pick up Plastic Soup.

Misciel Roscam Abbing makes a serious subject accessible to readers by breaking the book up into focused sections (only a few pages long) with eye-catching photographs. It is hard to look away from an image of a dead bird, its stomach full of plastic it mistook for food, or from a photograph of a boy playing happily on a beach, its sand and water overflowing with plastic waste. So often, plastic thrown away is out of sight and out of mind. But Plastic Soup reminds readers that plastic never really goes away.

The book carefully explains that, even though many people feel good about recycling plastics, recycling cannot be our only effort to help the environment. Though plastics have their uses (such as food preservation), Abbing points out that most plastic is never recycled. In fact, the U.S. often just ships their plastics to other countries, where it might be incinerated (also not great for the environment) or tossed into a landfill. The problem is, Abbing notes, recycled plastic currently has no value, and people and companies see no reason to try to recycle it or reclaim it (though it’s also worth noting that plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely so it will one day end up in the environment, anyway).

The book also does a nice job of touching on the subject of microplastics, which is a relatively new concern, so not every book on waste and plastic mentions it. However, Abbing explains that plastic that ends up in the environment eventually degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics are found in the ocean, where they are eaten by fish (and then humans) or otherwise negatively impact wildlife (in ways we are still discovering). Microplastics are found in farming soil, where they are potentially taken in by plants (and then ingested by humans). Microplastics have even been found in the air we breath. Humans could be full of microplastics. But we don’t know yet what that means for human health.

The book is not all doom and gloom, however. It ends with various methods that have been proposed to help recycle or reduce plastic such as lasering foods instead of placing stickers on them, using ocean plastic to make new goods, and finding ways to collect the microplastics that our clothes shed when we place them in the wash. And it helpfully comments on whether these strategies are potentially truly effective, or not. (“Greenwashing,” the practice of presenting a product as more environmentally friendly than it really is, in order to cash in on the demand for such products, has is a growing concern.)

Plastic Soup is a quick, accessible read for those who want to learn more about plastic and its effects on the environment, but who may be intimidated by longer, more in-depth works. It makes the subject approachable by breaking up the book into easily digestible sections, all highlighted with eye-catching photos. A must-read!

Fast Facts

  • Many plastic products are designed to be thrown out so consumers will buy more.
  • 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away each hour in the U.S.
  • Over 90% of plastics in the U.S. end up in a landfill.
  • It is estimated that 22-43% of plastic worldwide ends up in a landfill.
  • 3% of the plastic produced every year ends up in the ocean.
4 stars

InstaStyle: Curate Your Life, Create Stunning Photos, and Elevate Your Instagram Influence by Tessa Barton

InstaStyle

Information

Goodreads: InstaStyle
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Star Divider

Review

Initially I picked up Tessa Barton’s InstaStyle hoping for some advice on how to take better photographs for Instagram, as well as some insight on how to grow an audience. Perhaps I was naive to believe that Barton would offer advice that could be applied to the average Instagram user. InstaStyle ultimately comes across as a bit oblivious towards the lifestyle of the average person, spouting platitudes about chasing your dreams that feel hollow when the reader realizes Barton’s success stems from resources most can never hope to achieve.

Barton’s recipe for success boils down to a few key points, most of which the average person will presumably struggle to replicate. For instance, Barton admits that she works seven days a week, notes that you will need to pay a professional photographer to take your photos, and recommends that you learn to edit your own photos (with expensive software) so you do not have to pay the photographer for that, as well. Most people will probably be unwilling or unable to do all this.

In addition, one cannot help but feel a bit inadequate when comparing one’s potential photographs to Barton’s. It probably helps her a lot that she’s young, traditionally beautiful, and blonde (as is basically every other successful Instagrammer she recommends in the book). She also manages to pull off what appears to be an expensive wardrobe and she clearly travels a lot–all of this takes money the average person does not have. And though she says that a great photograph can be found anywhere, even in a construction site, it seems obvious that her followers want to see exotic vacation locales–not a dingy street with a truck.

There’s something deeply unsettling about all this, not only in how impossible it feels to achieve Instagram success unless you are wealthy and beautiful, but in how wasteful it all seems. How many outfits must a person buy, wear, and discard? How much gas does one have to use flying across the world several times a year, just to take photographs? The negative impact of one successful influencer on the environment seems extraordinary. But the book never asks if it’s worth it. It just assumes that it is.

Tucked away in the book are a few worthwhile notes, such as how to calculate your engagement rate. There are also a few spreads with ideas on how to post diverse content while still maintaining a feeling of consistency. Some of the useful tips may not be so useful at all when you consider the cost, however. Paying for a preset filter to achieve a recognizable aesthetic? Probably not worth it for most.

InstaStyle is definitely a book for serious readers who are willing to invest serious time and money into Instagram in the hopes of gaining partnerships with companies. The average person just wanting to take a better photo, however, will be better off looking for advice elsewhere.

2 star review