Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Review of Sunday Book Reviews

The NY Times Book Review is outstanding this weekend!

1. Here is a compact and interesting review of a new book about us white folks. African-American historian Nell Painter wrote the book about the history of "white" people reviewed by Jewish-white-American Linda Gordon. Good for Ms. Painter in helping us understand the sociological constructs and the abuse of science in the past 200 years that make us think our skin color matters all that much. Gordon does not explicitly say it, but as recently as 80 years ago, Irish and Jewish people were not considered "white." That's how fluid these constructs really are...

2. Here is a nice review by historian Alan Brinkley of a new book on the FDR so-called "court packing" proposal of 1937, and its effects. Brinkley, though, fails to mention the Supreme Court started out with six members, grew to seven, then ten (!), then back to nine all in the space of 80 years after the US Constitution was ratified. See here and here. What was striking in Brinkley's review is that when FDR supported a pension for the justices, three of the dreaded "old men" resigned almost immediately thereafter. Guess these capitalist philosophers liked socialism after all...As you may guess, I would have likely been on FDR's side in the 1930s and find it ridiculous how one-sided the historical discussion has been on this topic since the controversy itself.

3. For those who know me, Michelle Obama is already one of my favorite First Ladies, though her tenure is still too early to make any lasting decisions in that regard. However, John Quincy Adams' wife, Louisa, has always been right up there with Eleanor Roosevelt as a most praiseworthy First Lady (I don't think they were called that back then...), though for different reasons than ER. Unfortunately, this review gives us only a glimpse of the extraordinary Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams. Most of us know about Abigail, JQA's mother, but it is Louisa who truly would resonate with modern women, and the cross-currents of the political and personal that defined her life. The best book on Louisa and the world she lived in, and fought against, remains for me at least "The Adams Women" by Paul Nagel. Nagel writes with a sensitivity toward the difficult life women had in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries that is most astonishing for a male--and I say that as one of those with "outdoor plumbing." I continue to recommend that book wherever I can, and do so again. It should be said that Louisa did eventually impress Abigail, and especially John Adams, and she was most revered in the last days of her life. She was a wise and balanced person in so many ways, and her trek across Europe in the dead of winter following the Napoleonic Wars is only a partial testament to that.

4. And lest anyone think that I believe the male and female brains are really all that different--as opposed to how our culture dominates our personalities--Emily Bazelon neatly demolishes a new book by a pop neuropsychiatrist here.

5. This review of a new book on the "Sabbath" (Jewish) world was amusing, and a nice introduction to two thoughts: (1) How rituals fall particularly hard on women, particularly those women who work outside the home and (2) How the rituals themselves are symbols and totems for various times in human history. Notice too that it is a Jewish person reviewing a Jewish book--and, as I remarked at the end of my review of book reviews last week, where was the black reviewing the book on black history?

There are also nice reviews of a new biography on Fred Harvey (which should have mentioned the woman architect behind him, the amazing Mary Coulter--the link is to a book I bought at the Grand Canyon a few years ago and then read and enjoyed); the particularly stupid, racist and violent prison culture of the American South, and its pernicious effects on the American criminal justice system; and a review of a new novel on the American way of debt. This last one intrigued me so much I decided to look up the book, and read the first chapter (here). Sadly, the prose struck me as cloying with a too self-conscious narrator. That is perhaps only my traditionalist taste, so I invite others to give the book a chance.

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