Audiobook Review: FURIOUS HOURS, Harper Lee researches the infamous Reverend Willie Maxwell

1E637C1C-2484-4A93-953C-DD11F29AEB4EFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Casey Cep
Narrated by Hillary Huber

In the 1970s, in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie Maxwell suffered the loss of five family members, including two wives, a brother, and nephew. After police discovered he had multiple life insurance policies on the decedents, Maxwell was brought to trial but successfully defended by attorney Tom Radney.

When Maxwell’s stepdaughter, Shirley Ann Ellington, died in 1977, ostensibly due to a mishap while changing a flat tire, Maxwell was suspected of killing her, yet he delivered the eulogy at her funeral. Before the crowd dispersed, Shirley’s uncle, Robert Burns, fatally shot Maxwell inside the chapel.

Despite hundreds of witnesses, Burns was acquitted, and his lawyer was none other than Tom Radney, the same man who insured Maxwell himself didn’t go to prison. Watching the proceedings unobtrusively was the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the world’s most beloved novels.

Harper Lee, who had traveled to Kansas with Truman Capote to help research In Cold Blood, had in mind to write a true crime novel of her own, and she spent time living in “Alex City” and interviewing the principals.

In the well-researched Furious Hours, Casey Cep presents two narratives in a single volume: the story of Maxwell’s misdeeds and downfall and of Harper Lee and her book, The Reverend, that she never finished. In recounting these histories, Cep offers vivid and lively biographies of a range of characters and provides important sociological context, particularly regarding issues of race in Alabama.

I listened to the Libro.FM audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber, and I thought she did a phenomenal job bringing the words to life. (When I read her biography, I learned she’s recorded almost 400 audiobooks!)

Published by Knopf Doubleday

Book Review: THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS

The Collected Schizophrenias
Esme Weijun Wang

I thought The Collected Schizophrenias was well-written and valuable. It showed how difficult it can be to get diagnosis and treatment, especially when multiple illnesses are involved. Wang allows readers to see the scary and disconcerting elements of her breakdowns which promotes empathy for those struggling with mental illness. She also shows how she successfully lives with schizophrenia, by identifying triggers and planning ahead, for example.

My favorite chapters were the more personal, reflective narratives rather than the abstract theoretical pieces, though Wang does have interesting insight into forced hospitalization. She did talk about how her accomplishments, such as her education, provided proof to her of her value despite her illnesses, so I understood the impulse to document her accomplishments, but at times feels more like braggadocio. Another stylist quirk was using first initials to identify some people in her book, such as C— for her husband. This makes little sense to me because she named him in the acknowledgements. For others, I wondered why she didn’t choose to use an alias since that would have felt less pretentious to me. Still, this is an honest, vulnerable account of Wang’s experience of psychiatric illness, a beneficial testament to her ability to thrive.

Book Review: GOOD AND MAD will make you good and mad

Traister, Rebecca - Good and Mad (1)Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister contextualizes female rage from abolitionists and suffragists to the participants in the March for Women and those in the #metoo movement. She explains how women have been socialized to tamp down anger but in reality, that very anger can, and in the past has, led to momentous social change.

Good and Mad explains how existing cultural and social institutions, built by white men, maintain their power, and perpetuate it by dividing the interests of groups that might unite to topple it, such as men of color and women. She also explicates how white women become implicated in the extant system, and her interpretation of why a majority of white women voted for Trump is the only one that has made any sense to me (as stomach churning as it is).

Traister writes for white women, some of whom might be feeling rage for the first time after Trump and the revelations of #metoo. She is careful, though, to remind readers of the vital and often overlooked contribution of black women. Black women brought the first sexual harassment cases to court in the 1970s and a black woman started #metoo in the mid-2000s. Rightly so, black women have been angry for a very long time–and while white women showing anger violates cultural expectations, when black women show anger, they suffer even more, diminished to the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. The sections on how women need to work together going forward were among my favorite in the book, yet I also craved more stories about women of color in the book.

Of course, a fear behind this anger is that the anger will diminish without leading to any real change. The final section of the book offers both strategies and a message of cautious hopefulness.

It’s perhaps not too surprising that as I read the book and learned more, I became even angrier than I had been (though Traister would say that’s not necessarily a bad thing and might even be a good thing). The book is meticulously researched and contains ample evidence to support her arguments along with personal insight. And, while the topic is serious, the book contains moments of levity that made me actually laugh.

As I mentioned, I might have liked additional stories from women of color or a sense that they were part of the audience for the book. Additionally, at times, I didn’t enjoy Traister’s writing style. Some of her sentences were like roller coasters, endlessly long with excessive elliptical clauses and descriptive phrases that were unnecessarily difficult. Overall, however, I thought this was an excellent and important volume, one that both taught me new information and helped me make sense of the current cultural landscape. I recommend Good and Mad for any angry woman or man or any man wanting to understand and angry woman.

Book Review: GIRL SLEUTH – NANCY DREW AND THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER

Rehak, Melanie - Girl Sleuth (2)Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
Melanie Rehak

Although I read some Nancy Drew books as a child, I wasn’t an avid fan. One of my friends, though, had more than a full shelf of Nancy Drew mysteries, and I remember how satisfying it was to see those yellow spines orderly arrayed. But I never returned to Nancy Drew; I admit, I thought of her as a little square, and when I picked up Girl Sleuth, I expected a straightforward account of the ghostwriters behind the Carolyn Keene persona. I was very wrong!

I had no idea how the idea behind Nancy Drew was conceived or executed or how much drama there was behind the scenes, nor was I old enough to register the controversy over who “really” wrote the Nancy Drew books when Mildred Benson, the first ghostwriter, testified in a trial in 1980. Until then, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams who took over her father’s company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1930 and wrote many of the later Nancy Drew books, was thought to have been Carolyn Keene.

But these two women weren’t the only to have written Nancy Drew mysteries. What’s more, the manuscripts were based on detailed outlines provided by the Syndiated, and then the manuscripts were heavily edited. In this case, what authorship means becomes a difficult question, and the truth likely is that no single person was Carolyn Keene; she was an amalgam of identities.

Additionally, how Henry Stratemeyer operated the Syndicate and Harriet continued it–as a woman during a time when women didn’t lead companies, starting during the Depression no less made for fascinating reading. Harriet and her sister Edna at first worked together, but conflict divided them until Edna moved to Florida and they were barely talking.

Melanie Rehak’s comprehensive research, though, doesn’t just tell the story of the family, the company, and the Nancy Drew series. It offers a historical context to situate the behavior and decisions of the principle actors. I didn’t know, for example, that the first editions of the Nancy Drew mysteries had a spunky, defiant Nancy, but one who was casually racist. When Grosset & Dunlap, the publisher, insisted on revising the books to remove the racial prejudice, some of Nancy’s spark that made her resonant with feminists in the 1960s and 70s was also edited away.

Although the Nancy Drew books are still published today–and publishers still attempt to create new and trendy tie-ins, Nancy Drew hasn’t ever duplicated the popularity she experienced in her heyday. The most recent entry is a forthcoming movie, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019).

Since I wasn’t a huge fan of Nancy Drew but only picked up Girl Sleuth out of a passing curiosity, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned, and I think that it would also appeal to so many other readers: fans of Nancy Drew, those interested in publishing, feminism, or women’s history, or people who like reading fascinating sagas.

Book Review: THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING, an incisive book of essays

Jerkins, Morgan - This Will Be My Undoing (3)This Will Be My Undoing:
Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins combines incisive social commentary with revealing personal memoir to unabashedly portray the experience of a young black woman in the United States.

Her stories are heartbreaking. At ten, all she wanted was to be a cheerleader, and she threw herself into practice, but after tryouts, the new squad was comprised completely of white girls. Throughout her teens and twenties, she excelled academically and grew professionally, but did not achieve the relationship success she desired–in fact, she had a knack for choosing rather horrible men. Meanwhile, although ambivalent about the procedure, she had surgery for a painful hypertrophic labia minora. She was supported by her mother with whom she had a close bond as well as an evolving understanding of her relationship with God.

As she writes about her own experiences, Jerkins relates the particular constraints society has placed on her as a black women. Her body is problematic, sexualized, objectified, and a source of shame. She is expected to be the Strong Black Woman and bear all burdens. Yet at the same time, she cannot show any kinks in her armor. She explains the lengths she goes to perfect her hair: “black women are conscious of how much our appearances are scrutinized, so we painstakingly put ourselves through these beauty rituals to paradoxically create some kind of peace, to ‘fit in’ and therefore be left alone.” She feels she cannot make a mistake or someone (white) will conclude she is unworthy, that is not like them.

As a result, Jerkins writes about the importance of black spaces, of black writers publishing about their experiences, and of black women supporting each other. Finishing the book, I was angry on behalf of Jerkins and other black women, but also hopeful. At the same time, I was unclear how to be an ally. White women, of which I am one, were eviscerated in the book for either ignoring or appropriating the experiences of black women. While I totally understand that historically feminism has not excelled at understanding intersectionality, surely there is something allies can do. Although, maybe that thing is just to be active, supportive listeners.

Speaking of intersectionality, while I thought This Will Be My Undoing a well-written, engaging, and valuable essay collection, I was disappointed that Jerkins did not give more attention to the topic. A few times, she did mention there is no one way of being a black woman, but overall, she lapses into homogenization or stereotype when dealing with racial, ethnic, and gender groups. Her inability or unwillingness to complicate others often undercuts her arguments and positions her as uncompromising.

Finally, although I adore the title This Will Be My Undoing, I find it inappropriate for Jerkin’s book. What she faces as a black woman could be her undoing, but it is decidedly not. In fact, as she concludes the book, she celebrates not just the presence of black women in previously barred spaces, but their excellence. For those that wanted to subjugate her and others, “This was their nightmare and my joy. Surprise. You should have known I was coming.” This is the battle cry of someone not even on the verge of being undone, someone who is claiming all the places she deserves.