Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis (Harper Barnes 2001)

Rating: 5/5

David Rowland Francis was mayor of St. Louis and governor of Missouri, the only man to have done both in a state that distrusts its urban centers. When Academic Hall burned down at the University of Missouri, he kept the university in Columbia. Francis brought the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair to St. Louis. From 1916 to 1917, Francis was the US Ambassador to Russia, serving through the February Revolution and the October Bolshevik Revolution. In its first half, Standing on a Volcano details Francis’ family life and career in Missouri; in its second half, it details his service in Russia. In Missouri, Francis is a man in his element, a man who knows how the machine whirs; in Russia, we see Francis struggle to grasp the mechanisms of a society whose machine has gone haywire. It’s a fascinating biography and a fascinating history of St. Louis and the Russian revolution.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I attended the University of Missouri. I’m a St. Louis native, and I love Russian history. The quadrangle at Mizzou is the Francis Quad, but I didn’t learn about David R. Francis until the 250th anniversary of St. Louis exhibit at the Missouri Historical Society. I bought this biography in the gift shop.

THE GOOD

  • Volcano (like so many St. Louisans) discusses why Chicago boomed and St. Louis didn’t. We often blame the Civil War, but Barnes suggests the steamboat. Chicago developed rail, while St. Louis languished.  A rail route crossed the Mississippi west of Chicago before the Civil War; the St. Louis Eads Bridge was completed in 1874, well after the contest was lost. Barnes also argues that the St. Louis business community was more conservative in an era that, overall, rewarded risk. After learning about the St. Louis business community in Veiled Prophet and the Chicago business community in Death in the Haymarket, this feels true.
  • Philip Jordan was a light-skinned black man from Jefferson City, an orphan or something close to it, a street fighter with a drinking problem. He became Francis’ indispensable companion, accompanying him to Russia. We so rarely learn about the support staff of our famous antecedents, and Jordan is fascinating. He became fluent in Russian, expertly navigating the food shortages of conflict-ravaged Russia. In Russia Jordan was perceived as native, but perhaps from the south. In the United States, he was often mistaken for white, but subject to the discrimination of the era whenever his race was known.
  • Volcano indirectly reveals how women and people of color get written out of history. Francis wrote little of Jordan, his companion, caregiver, and even partner of many years. A Russian woman, Matilda de Cramm, also occupies much of the book, and was a close friend to Francis during his time in Russia. Francis mentions her once in his book about the revolution. If we were to use only documents from Francis, we would see very little of Jordan or Madame de Cramm.
  • I enjoyed the examination contrast of diplomatic veterans with Francis. Although history has sometimes been unkind to Francis (Russia didn’t turn out so well, after all), Volcano makes the case for Francis.

 THE BAD

  • It’s great that Volcano includes Matilda de Cramm, a Russian woman whom many suspected to be a German spy. Francis had some level of inappropriate relationship with her during his ambassadorship, which elicited a lot of gossip. But we learn little about her. The book includes dozens of contemporary speculations and frettings about de Cramm. It was a big part of Francis’ time in Russia, but ultimately, there is very little of substance. She doesn’t seem to have been a German spy. It was hard to track and boring after a while.
  • Francis’ Kentucky childhood and family genealogy was dull and I would have preferred less of it.

 

OVERALL

If you have an interest in St. Louis history or Russian history, at least half of this book is worth your while. I’ve never read a nonfiction book with such contrasting halves, but I really enjoyed it. The contrast made for an interesting human study as well. We see a man working in his element, and the same man struggling to tread water. We see 19th century American wheeling and dealing, and we see foreign policy. Francis was a free-market enthusiast, but saw the argument for socialism in Russia. The reader sees Francis’ thinking evolve with his experiences; he wasn’t an ideologue. I enjoyed Standing on a Volcano as a history and as a biography.

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Book Review: The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration (Thomas Spencer 2000)

Rating: 3.5/5

St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 details a strange institution in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The Veiled Prophet celebration was St. Louis’ response to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras inverts the social order; the fool is king for a day, and the rich man mingles with the poor man. The Veiled Prophet celebration was created to reinforce the social order, to show the lower classes the differences between them and the leading luminaries. Veiled Prophet details the evolution of this celebration; it began in 1878 in response to a massive labor strike in 1877, and continues to this day, although less overtly political.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Starting in the late 1970s, The Veiled Prophet society organized the Fourth of July celebration in St. Louis. Until 1992, the celebration was called the VP Fair (today it is called Fair St. Louis). When I learned with bafflement that the VP stood for “Veiled Prophet,” I grew curious. The Veiled Prophet society is such an old tradition in St. Louis, but little talked about, due to lack of interest and the elitist threads of the society. But many of the most influential St. Louisans took part in this strange organization; it’s a part of St. Louis history and shapes today’s city. Many of you even know a queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball—Ellie Kemper, perhaps better known as Kimmy Schmidt.

THE GOOD

The Veiled Prophet society, to the extent folks even remember it today, has a reputation for being snobbish and racist. It was unsurprising to learn that the society formed to praise the strong hand of business in the face of labor unrest. (For more about 19th century labor unrest, Death in the Haymarket is a great book; I reviewed it here.)

Initially, the parade anchored the celebration, timed to revive the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in October. It was an attempt, although too late, to compete with Chicago. The Veiled Prophet was a robed man, his face hidden, that oversaw the parade. The first Veiled Prophet was Police Commissioner John Priest, an active foe of the prior year’s labor riots. After Priest voluntarily unveiled himself in 1878, the Prophet’s identity remained secret, revealed only once by a crazed caper in 1972.

The celebration evolved with time. Some decades the parade would be educational, others more lighthearted. With time, the Veiled Prophet Ball became the more important component; at its peak it was covered in minute detail in the local papers, and even broadcast nationally after World War 2. The Veiled Prophet character evolved too. Originally just a title, they eventually added a mythology of an exotic easterner.

The relationship between the organization and the media changed substantially with time as well. The Republic was owned by members of the society, and thus covered the events in detail. More recent coverage has been more critical.

I also enjoyed reading about the people involved, though there was less of this than I would have liked. David R. Francis, the man who brought the Olympics and the World’s Fair to St. Louis, was an active member. One of the first members, Alonzo Slayback, died after a fight with a newspaperman. The 1927 Veiled Prophet queen was, scandalously, already married at the time she became queen, and, even worse, without her father’s permission! In an interview in 1977, she mused that the society still hadn’t gotten over it.

THE BAD

Although Veiled Prophet is meticulously researched, it is fairly dry. It reads like a list of facts and newspaper archives more than a narrative. The roles of the people involved in the society are only lightly sketched. This meant the book was shorter, but less relatable.

Also absent is any local St. Louis history. The World’s Fair, the tornado of 1896, mayoral elections and politics, various strikes—these events do not appear in the book.

The book stays narrowly focused on the Veiled Prophet society, for good or ill. I would have preferred more context. This book is, for the most part, just the facts, and less interpretation than some other works of history.

OVERALL

This book is a 5/5 for content about the society and quality of sources. The writing quality is fine, but the narrow approach of the topic makes it a dry read. For someone interested in St. Louis history, it is well worthwhile. I found it less enjoyable and informative than I had hoped; I wanted to better understand St. Louis history, the Veiled Prophet context in that history, and how St. Louis differed from other cities in this respect. This book doesn’t offer a lot of interpretation for the reader. Not everybody wants that, but I was hoping for it.

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson 2010)

Rating: 4/5

In The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson describes the migration of African Americans from the south to northern cities from World War I through 1970. She follows Ida Mae Gladney’s journey from Mississippi to Chicago in the 30’s, George Starling’s journey from Florida to New York in the 40s, and Dr. Robert Foster’s journey from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 50s. With these three stories (and some shorter accounts of others), Wilkerson describes the larger movements of a massive and yet relatively-little discussed movement of people.

Five million African-Americans moved north during the Great Migration; the 1850s California Gold Rush drew 100,000 west and the 30s Dust Bowl migration brought 300,000 west. African Americans across the south moved north, drawn by jobs and hope, pushed by discrimination and fear. Detroit went from 1.4% black to 44%; the Great Migration reshaped the racial and cultural landscape of the country, north and south.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I haven’t read a lot of black history. Between the prominent racial stories of St. Louis (my hometown) and the nation in the last few years, it felt like time to do some catch-up. Most of my friends and family have read less black history than me. It’s strange that race relations, a topic that garners so much discussion, is understood with so little depth by so many.

THE GOOD

The Great Migration is a massive amorphous movement of 5 million people from one large region of the country to another across two generations. Wilkerson captures much of the diversity of this movement in her three subjects. They have different education levels and travel to and from different places at different times. The Warmth of Other Suns is a story of people that made tough choice to leave what they knew hoping to improve their lives and their children’s lives. We follow Ida Mae, George, and Robert from childhood to death, and we get to see their successes and failures. Wilkerson augments these anecdotes with the statistics of the other millions.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates the depravity of the Jim Crow south in a way that many histories tend to avoid. Ida Mae describes how young men dangled her over a well when she was five; she knew that, if dropped, she would never have been found. George Starling fled Florida after a friend overheard plans of his murder when he organized the orange pickers. Arrington High was institutionalized in an insane asylum for exposing white politicians that patronized a colored brothel; after two years he was smuggled north in a coffin. Separate but equal was a blatant sham; a Louisiana superintendent said, “the money allocated to the colored children is spent on the education of the white children. We have twice as many colored children… as we have white… Colored children are mighty profitable to us.” Wilkerson compares blacks moving north to those that fled the Soviet Union. She notes how the migration ebbed after the Civil Rights movement dismantled the worst of Jim Crow.

Blacks continued to face hardships after moving north. In Chicago, blacks were restricted to tiny portions of the city, whose sub-standard housing grew crowded and expensive. Race riots erupted in many of the northern cities. This passage about Jesse Owens lays bare the hypocrisy quietly hiding in the north:

It made headlines throughout the United Staes that Adolf Hitler, who had watched the races, had refused to shake hands with Owens, as he had with white medalists. But Owens found that in Nazi Germany, he had been able to stay in the same quarters and eat with his white teammates, something he could not do in his home country. Upon his return, there was a ticker-tape parade in New York. Afterward, he was forced to ride the freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria.

I grew up in one of the most segregated cities in the country. We still had bussing to enforce desegregation when I attended school. St. Louis went from 6.4% black in the 1910 census to 40.9% in the 1970 census. I never realized that the white flight that created my suburbs was driven by migration. After all, Missouri was a slave state, I assumed blacks had always been a part of the city. Reading about the Great Migration led me to look at my own community differently. Who hasn’t heard political discussion of the ghetto, of black poverty, of wealth inequality and racially disparate criminal justice outcomes? These discussions usually center on northern cities, and the Great Migration and the forces that drove it created those communities. It’s tempting to view black history as separate history, but it obviously isn’t.

When we understand what happened 50 years ago, we are better able to understand what happens today. A black boy was tortured to death in front of his father for sending a girl a Christmas card. The man who publicized this murder, Harry T. Moore, was murdered when his home was bombed in 1951. This is not ancient history. And yet, by the reaction to Black Lives Matters, there are many who bristle at the idea that blacks still face systematic obstacles.

THE BAD

The last hundred pages were weaker. The first part told me about a movement with a scope I didn’t know, driven by evil I hadn’t fully realized. The last hundred pages narrow to cover the last decades of the three subjects. Wilkerson makes fewer connections to the larger world here. Ida Mae, George, and Robert felt so grounded, the representatives of millions in the first 400 pages of the book. In the last 100 pages, they float unconnected from demographics and national forces. As people, well, they’re not that interesting. It felt like a missed opportunity to connect the past and the present.

OVERALL

The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story. It’s the fight for the American Dream; African Americans trekked north in their own country instead of crossing an ocean to a new country. Unlike my Czech ancestors, they couldn’t shed their otherness, either in the north or the south. They weren’t allowed to. This shapes our cities and communities.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates a huge demographic shift through individuals. The Great Migration stirred our national culture. Michelle Obama, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington were all children of the Great Migration. It deserves its place in the American legend along with the Oregon Trail, Route 66, pioneers, and other tales of self-determinism and bravery. The Warmth of Other Suns does a good job toward that end.

Book Review: The Snail Darter and the Dam (Zygmunt Plater 2013)

Rating: 5/5

In  The Snail Darter and the Dam, Zygmunt Plater describes his famous legal battle over Tennessee’s Tellico Dam, which he argued all the way to a 6-3 US Supreme Court victory in 1978. Plater and local activists  argued that the dam would threaten the endangered snail darter fish, a violation of the recently-passed Endangered Species Act. The media covered it as a case of environmentalism run amok, but the ESA appeal was a backdoor to stopping an unsound project. Despite the court victory, a congressional finding that the dam project was financially unsound to finish even at 95% complete, and the fact that the dam would submerge some of the oldest human artifacts in the country, the dam was completed and stands today. The Snail Darter and the Dam details the grueling work of grassroots activism and the hazards of bureaucracy and entrenched interests.

WHY THIS BOOK?

This summer, I read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a tale of water administration. Before moving west, I had no idea what skullduggery surrounded the history of water rights. Reisner’s description of the Tellico Dam battle, though brief, was intriguing. Snail Darter was written so recently by a member of the legal team, a different perspective than that offered in Cadillac Desert.

THE GOOD

Snail Darter is the story of a young law professor who follows sound and sober reason and is battered by our bureaucratic institutions. He loses his job, and works himself to exhaustion trying to achieve the impossible: getting members of the bureaucracy and government to see a deeply-flawed bureau project for what it is. He fails.

Snail Darter is the story of a region’s struggles against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Little Tennessee River was one of the last free-flowing rivers in the backyard of the energy bureaucracy behemoth. It was one of the last fly fishing rivers in the east. It was the site of Cherokee settlements dating back over 10,000 years, many with religious significance. It was fertile farmland. In spite of this, the TVA wanted to build a dam that wouldn’t even supply power. It was originally pitched as a way to grow an industrial city anchored by Boeing. After Boeing backed out, the TVA continued to fight for their pointless and destructive project. The locals fought the dam starting in the mid 60’s. Lawyer and author Zygmunt Plater joined the fight in 1974.

Conservatives like Sean Hannity, Antonin Scalia, and George Will still invoke the snail darter as a symbol of environmentalism run amok. How ironic—the darter was the last means for locals to halt an impractical dam foisted upon them by a federal bureaucracy.  As Plater tells it, the darter was only successful in holding up the dam because of the deep unsoundness of the project. At last, there was a mechanism to force scrutiny upon the insane project, a back door by which to achieve oversight. Opposition to Tellico Dam should have been bipartisan—it was porkbarrel without economic upshot.

People don’t remember that part of the story because the media failed. Walter Cronkite called the lawsuit “frivolous.” Respected giants like the New York Times and ABC framed the lawsuit as an intractable conflict between economics and environment rather than covering the project’s flaws. They failed to cover the situation of farmers like Nell McCall; only 3 of her 90 acres would be submerged by the reservoir but the TVA would buy her out at suppressed prices to sell to the industrial city that no longer had tenants. If we think that media is flawed today, unable to give nuance and factual coverage, well, it’s nothing new.

Plater describes the support of grassroots organizations in Washington, DC. These are the counterparts to the lobbyists of K Street, devoted and passionate people who sleep on couches or at their desks waging an unfunded but righteous battle. Plater received extensive help from Anne Wickham of Friends of the Earth, Dave Conrad of America Rivers, and others.

Snail Darter describes the “Iron Triangle” that supports bureaucracies like the TVA. In the Iron Triangle, congress, bureaucracies, and interest groups support one another in the advancement of projects, each reinforcing one another’s weak points. For Tellico Dam, connected members of congress supported the TVA, which was supported by private construction companies. These three groups can mobilize money, media, and attack dogs that a grass roots organization can’t hope to oppose. In the case of Tellico Dam, the Iron Triangle triumphed over a Supreme Court ruling, economic inviability, and a hostile president, leading to the dam’s completion in 1979.

irontriangle

From Wikipedia: the Iron Triangle, showing how congress, interest groups, and the bureaucracies have interwoven incentives.

 

THE BAD

The subject matter is depressing. But as a meat eater has an obligation to understand that his steak once belonged to a cow, I’d argue an American has an obligation to learn about the making of law. It’s ugly. And in Snail Darter, a totally awful project is built for the vanity of a few removed bureaucrats, over the protest and struggle of hundreds. But they wouldn’t have succeeded if more people had cared when it mattered.

OVERALL

Snail Darter peeks inside government and bureaucracy. It shows what happens when media fails to be the fourth estate. 40 years later, the snail darter controversy remains misunderstood.

Today, we hope the media will be vigilant and informative; we hope it will stand up to government apparatus if it abuses people. Snail Darter suggests a certain pessimism to that hope, but it also provides an instruction manual for how accountability can work. In Plater’s tale, grassroots organizations interacted with congress and tried to inform the media. Donations to organizations like the ACLU and SPLC have skyrocketed recently. That’s encouraging.

I’m not a law buff, but Snail Darter was engrossing. If you are American and have ever liked a nonfiction book, I recommend this one.

Book Review: Santa Anna of Mexico (Will Fowler 2007)

Rating: 4/5

Will Fowler’s Santa Anna of Mexico is about Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the six-time president of Mexico. Santa Anna partook in most major events in the first 40 years of Mexican independence. Americans might know his as the cruel Mexican general of The Battle of the Alamo in Texas. He was a charismatic and wily man, entwined with and representative of the problems of early Mexico. He is hated today in Mexico, with no roads or statues to his honor; Fowler presents a complex man living through complex times.

WHY THIS BOOK?

  1. Santa Anna pops up in southwestern history. He was the general at the Alamo. He lost a leg in the Pastry War. He conned James Polk during the Mexican-American War. Eventually, I had to read his biography.
  2. Although the United States has only two neighbor countries, I know almost nothing about the history of either.

THE GOOD

Go look at the heads of state of Mexico on Wikipedia. For the first 30 years, only one lasted his whole term. 19th century United States sometimes seems dysfunctional; we’ve got nothing on Mexico. How did Mexico turn out so differently? This book helped me understand that a little.

Santa Anna’s biography is a great way to learn the (ridiculously complex and confusing) early history of Mexico. Santa Anna’s personal history parallels his country’s history. Fowler splits Santa Anna’s career into four stages: Hope (1821-28), Disenchantment (1828-35), Disillusion (1835-47), and Despair (1847-53).

Fowler portrays a complex Santa Anna. Santa Anna is blamed as the man who lost Texas, the man who lost the Mexican-American War (ceding half the country to the US), and the man who signed the humiliating Gadsden Purchase (ceding some more land to the US). He was also the Hero of Tampico, fending off a Spanish invasion, and the hero of the Pastry War, in which he lost a leg. In the Mexican-American War, he returned from exile in Cuba and valiantly fought when all others seemed paralyzed by infighting. The man had more lives than a cat. He was incredibly opportunistic, but he was also brave and believed in Mexico.

Fowler also describes Santa Anna as a caudillo. The caudillo, or strongman, is a political tradition in Latin America tracing to Spain’s colonial policies. The caudillo amassed money, land, and influence regionally; if his region was nationally influential enough, he would be nationally influential. Santa Anna became the caudillo of Veracruz, the large and crucial port of Mexico.

Donald Trump has been called the “Yankee Caudillo” in Latin American press. There are parallels. Santa Anna attacked the political parties as corrupt; he claimed to stand apart from the evils of partisanship and to fight for the people. Santa Anna stayed relevant with his wealth in Veracruz; likewise Trump stayed relevance with his global brand. Both men were constantly near power, but able to claim a mantle of purity. Like Trump, Santa Anna preferred to campaign (this time in the military sense). Santa Anna rarely held power for more than six months because he didn’t care to govern. (This is in contrast to other caudillos who held power for extended periods of time.) My understanding is admittedly superficial, but learning about Mexico’s politics gave me another perspective on American politics.

THE BAD

I struggled with the first few chapters. I was constantly consulting Wikipedia or a map. If you know little Mexican history, this book is absolutely readable, but it’s challenging.

OVERALL

Santa Anna is absurd, but Fowler explains him well. Santa Anna’s antics are so intimately a part of Mexico’s early struggles for democracy.

Santa Anna, like Mexico’s early failure, is so tragic. What could Mexico have accomplished if only they had achieved the stability of the early United States? Were the United States lucky to have achieved stability from the very beginning?

Finally, the caudillo concept provides insights into much of Latin America, and perhaps into the United States.

Book review: A Midwife’s Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich 1990)

Rating: 4/5

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 tells the tale of midwife Martha Ballard in 18th century frontier Maine. Every day for 35 years, Martha Ballard detailed the weather, her travels, her housework, her community, and her deliveries. If not for her diary, history would only have known Martha’s date of birth, the day she married, the day her children were born, and the day she died. Thanks to her diary, we have insight into her life and into the lives of frontier women in this time period. A Midwife’s Tale discusses rape, family conflict, the role of women in medicine, a family annihilation murder, women’s housework, sexual morays, and frontier life, among other things.

For content, this book is 5/5, it details a unique and wonderful document. For readability, I give A Midwife’s Tale a 3.5/5. Most of the difficulty of the book is inevitable; it has lots of original quotes.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Most history is written by rich older white men. In Martha’s town of Hallowell, Maine, two other diaries of the period survive, written by such men. Although she mentions the authors of these diaries multiple times, she barely appears in theirs. Her diary has roughly even numbers of men and women; theirs barely mention women. The wife of one of these men was a hatmaker; we know that from Martha’s diary, not his.

Martha Ballard’s diary is an ideal historical source. It’s a day to day documentation of her life, without narrative. It wasn’t written to entertain or titillate. It was private. To the extent that one person’s perspective and recording of the days can be honest, her account was.

THE GOOD

A Midwife’s Tale covers a range of topics. That’s part of its difficulty; it’s very broad. We learn about birth, medicine, illness and death, as one might expect from the diary of a midwife. We also learn about economics, debtors’ prison, family, the religious and political conflicts of colonial New England, sexuality, and crime.

Women of Martha’s era were tough. They had babies every other year, and said births typically kept them in bed for a week. They managed their own money, managed gardening and cloth making. Martha continued deliveries until her death at age 77, staying up long hours and traveling through all weather. She didn’t even begin her career until she was 50.

Colonial Maine is full of family squabbles, politics, and trysts. History is less chaste than we imagine when it’s recorded honestly; 38% of firstborns that Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. A few women even have multiple children out of wedlock, failing to marry at all. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, they are part of society too, and the fathers of their children are on the hook for support.

Martha moved to Hallowell at the beginning of the American experiment, and her life was full of changes from this. Her landlord had to flee to Canada for being a loyalist. She switches from shillings to dollars in her transactions. The town of Hallowell grew continuously while she lived there; it gave her much of her work. And the economics of her region changed with time. Her nephew was part of the Malta War, caused by economics conflicts of the Plymouth Company owning massive amounts of land and people chafing under this yolk.

THE BAD

This seems to be a recurring complaint for me, but there were too many people to keep track of. Is it too much to ask for a glossary of characters? This was especially bad in A Midwife’s Tale; people were referred to by more than one name or, with Martha’s tenuous grasp on spelling, said name could be spelled half a dozen different ways. Also, Martha had a large family and I totally lost track of who was related to her. A family tree would have been an asset.

A Midwife’s Tale is a slow and challenging read. Because Ulrich has to make (extremely well-researched) inferences, the details are presented with qualifications and caveats. While I appreciated the insight into the process of teasing  out the truth, it impacted the narrative flow substantially. This is less of a “bad thing” and more of a warning–this book makes the reader work.

 

OVERALL

This isn’t a book that tells you the narrative of a single event; it gives perspective on the lives of ordinary people as they traversed the many events of this time period. Life was complicated, but in many ways that are still recognizable today.

If you ever wonder about time travel, this book is probably one of the closest things we have to living a woman’s life in colonial Maine. It’s a unique work on a unique document and seems likely to be as timeless as the source document.

Book review: Whipping Girl (Julia Serano 2007)

Rating: 5/5

Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl details the author’s perspectives on gender. Serano describes her journey from awkward teenage boy, through crossdresser, and through her transition to a transgender woman. She discusses what gender means to her personally and her experiences in society. She discusses gender roles, myths about trans people, and the role of trans people in the feminist movement.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Transgender lives are political. 2016 saw the passage of North Carolina’s  HB2, the “bathroom bill”; 2017 started with 5 more states proposing similar legislature. These bills say that individuals born with male genitalia endanger people in the women’s restroom. I never believed that, but discussions of trans people made me realize how little I knew. With Whipping Girl, I sought the transgender story.

THE GOOD

Whipping Girl is a fabulous book. I read Whipping  Girl because I wanted to better understand life as a trans person, but it makes so many great points about gender for the rest of us. Part of the strength of Serano’s narrative is the fact that she has lived on both sides of our gender divide. Sometimes the success of Jewish entertainers has been attributed to their ability to be both insiders and outsiders; perhaps transgender women like Serano have an analogous experience with womanhood.

I can’t possibly cover all the things I liked about this book. It’s the rare book that makes me consider my own life differently.

Serano asserts the societal belief: most believe that men and women are equal, but many do not believe that masculinity and femininity are equal. We consider masculinity strong, natural, and unpretentious. Because masculine and feminine are opposites, we believe femininity to be weak, artificial, and pretentious. It’s a restatement of familiar arguments; masculine women are penalized for failing to fit the model of a woman, and feminine women are penalized for being feminine. I realized that I hold some of these beliefs. I have congratulated myself for rarely wearing make-up; I have sneered at female friends that dress up. I heard these messages growing up a lot. They are rooted in seeing femininity as a failing.

Serano describes how these societal beliefs complicate gender transition. She describes how mtf transgender people are viewed with suspicion. If masculinity is superior, someone who “trades down” voluntarily must have suspicious motivations. She describes how media shows many more mtf people than ftm. I hadn’t noticed, but it is true. Many of the roles with mtf people show them either as succubi seeking to entrap and damage men or as pitiful, funny failures. She cites a bunch of examples that I don’t know. My media experiences are with Orange is the New Black and Transparent. Hopefully that’s a sign of progress in the decade since this book’s publication.

Serano discusses nature versus nurture. Some believe that men are born masculine and women are born feminine (and thus, gender is nature). Some believe that we only exhibit gendered behaviors due to societal influences (and thus, gender is nurture). Serano argues that women are more likely to be feminine and men more likely to be masculine, but with a distribution of traits. In her model, gender expression is like height; on average, men are taller than women, but many individual women are taller than many individual men. Women, on average, gravitate towards stereotypically feminine behaviors like chattiness, but many individual men are more naturally  chatty than many women. Femininity feels natural to most women, and masculinity feels natural to most men, but not all.

Serano talks about the process of seeing herself as transgender. Since childhood, she had experienced feelings that she was a girl. She calls it gender dissonance. She experimented with a lot of different gender expressions, eventually leading her to the trans identity. When she started taking hormones, that felt right. She describes it as her brain believing her body to be female. We don’t fully understand the relationship between brain and body, but to me, this seems similar to the so called “sixth sense” of proprioception, the awareness of one’s body in space.

Serano also discusses the horrifying history of transgender people and medicine. It’s full of icky stuff like doctors rating their patients’ attractiveness, and seeing society’s comfort, rather than their patient’s, as the most important outcome of transition. Trans people were forced to leave home and assume a new life to make others comfortable, meaning that they were forced to leave their families and support networks. Today’s bathroom bills fall into that history of putting society’s discomfort above the health of an individual.

 

THE BAD

The book is a decade old. Although mine is a 2016 second edition, the guts haven’t changed much. Whipping Girl is still super informative, but a decade changes much. For example, DSM V was published in 2013; it’s treatment of transgender issues vary substantially from the DSM IV discussed in the book.

The second half of the book discusses trans theory and feminist theory. Some other reviews of the book suggest that she is unfair to the feminist movement; I have no idea. Still, the first part had a real immediacy that the second part didn’t. It probably would be well-suited to the classroom, but didn’t add much for me as a reader  just wanting to understand a different perspective better.

OVERALL

Whipping Girl is an essential read if you want to understand trans people better. It’s also a great dissection of gender in society. I came away from the book wishing that people could be more supportive of one another. Trans people aren’t bathroom predators, they’re people in a tough spot. We are obsessed with men being men and women being women, and we mostly don’t even notice. Trans people challenge that obsession, and we see that some people would rather punish others than question their assumptions.