Teaser Tuesdays: Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us by Paul Koudounaris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This year I am writing a gift review of Memento Mori, a big, beautiful coffee-table-style art book about reminders of death, or the dead, across cultures and years.

memento moriToday’s teaser sets up the concept that “our” (modern, Western) cultural approach to death is not the only one.

Leaving the village, I asked the guide if it was considered unusual to keep mummies in the home. His response was unforgettable. No, he did not find it unusual, because when he was a boy, he and his brothers slept in the same bed as the mummy of their grandfather.

The author is visiting Tana Toraja, a region in Sulawesi, Indonesia. As he’ll show, their practice of embracing the dead, preserving them and keeping them around as respected or beloved family members, is actually common in world history. Koudounaris’s informative writing is fascinating, but I admit the real feature here is his breathtaking photographs of memento mori. Stick around for my review to come around the holidays.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim MacQuarrie

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I am loving Life and Death in the Andes. It’s a moderately fat book at nearly 400 pages, but never less than captivating in all its various stories. Stay tuned for my review to come in December.


Today’s teaser is, of course, related to a sense of place.

“It is the fate of every voyager,” Darwin wrote later in his autobiography, “[that] when he has just discovered what object in any place is more particularly worthy of his attention, to be hurried from it.” Right now, however, Darwin was so upset he could hardly eat.

Why was Darwin so upset? It wasn’t seasickness, although his early days on the Beagle were beset by that complaint. No, he was dismayed to discover after the fact that he wasn’t such a professional naturalist, after all. Do pick up this engaging history to learn more!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem’s straight-talking memoir is rich with personal anecdote, political history and a fervent love for living on the go.


Gloria Steinem, founder of New York and Ms. magazines and many women’s organizations and a noted leader of the women’s movement, shares her stories from along the way in My Life on the Road. This simply stated memoir recounts Steinem’s childhood, her organizing and activism from her youth into the present, with commentary on the social and political events of those decades. But it is also explicitly a story of life lived on the move. As she sees it in hindsight, Steinem inherited a love for constant motion from her father, who lived for most of her life out of his car, with little Gloria keeping him company for her first 10 years. As a young woman not ready to settle down to marriage and motherhood, and then as an organizer, she kept moving. One chapter is dedicated to her choice to travel communally rather than use an automobile of her own, because it offers increased opportunities for contact.

In stating her goals for this book, Steinem cites storytelling as a central drive. Much is told in short vignettes, stories from those she’s met in her travels or lessons learned on her way. There are more than a few instances of Steinem making assumptions about people (Harley riders, cab drivers), only to have them proven wrong–emphasizing the idea that every person is more than he or she appears.

Steinem hopes to encourage her readers to hit the road, too. She is clearly deeply passionate about the advantages of travel: for perspective, for personal development and for plain enjoyment. She recommends that politicians travel the country and the world: “I called big-city contributors from on-the-road places, so I could say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like out here.'”

My Life on the Road is not a history of the women’s movement, although of course it contains many references to that history, as well as to the U.S. political climate and events of the second half of the 20th century. Instead, Steinem’s memoir is a glimpse into one remarkable woman’s life and philosophies of the road. It includes profiles of Steinem’s immediate family and friends like Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller and Florynce Kennedy, and briefly addresses the conflict between Steinem and Betty Friedan. Steinem’s writing style is personal, warm, approachable and straightforward. Her fans will be satisfied by this personal view, one that combines a love for people and places and stories and change with a love for movements–in both senses.

This review originally ran in the October 15, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 stories.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

A pioneering journalist’s compelling life story, evocatively told.

mary mcgrory

John Norris’s Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism is a well-researched and engaging biography of a fascinating figure, as well as an accessible view of some five decades of U.S. political history.

Mary McGrory had been a book reviewer for the Washington Evening Star for more than a decade when her editor offered her the chance to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Her first political assignment became the beginning of an influential career: she would go on to cover 12 presidential elections, and everything between. Boston Irish Catholic, with a strong impulse to volunteerism and charity, very proper and private in her personal life, Mary happily smoked and drank with the heartiest of her male colleagues. She flirted and made the men carry her bags, but “perhaps more than any other journalist in American history, she pushed her editors (and they were invariably men) to come to terms with the fact that women had something worthwhile to say.” Not an impartial journalist, even as she worked to push Bobby Kennedy into the 1968 presidential race, she practically hired Eugene McCarthy’s campaign manager herself. She never liked Nixon; dated Jack Kennedy before he was married (or president); was propositioned by Lyndon Johnson. Despite such drama, however, her greatest accomplishments were journalistic, as her exhaustive list of awards indicates.

Even with such absorbing material, Norris (The Disaster Gypsies) earns his reader’s respect with careful attention to detail and a precarious but precise balance between his primary, individual subject and the context of U.S. and world history. Mary McGrory is a striking story, meticulously and entertainingly portrayed.

Come back on Wednesday for my interview with John Norris.

This review originally ran in the September 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 Christmas parties.

Teaser Tuesdays: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

my life on the road

I was intimidated to read this book by Steinem – my first of hers – because she is such an accomplished, impressive woman. But I shouldn’t have been. She is warm and approachable on the page. Her story is not only of interest and worth reading (which of course I knew going in), but also well and simply told.

The book is a series of stories, and for today’s teaser, I’ve chosen one very short one for you.

On another campus, some women tell me about men who leave their own underwear on the floor and don’t feel compelled to pick it up – or even notice what they’ve done. By now, the shouts and laughter have become quite rowdy, and I’ve begun to worry about a silent young Japanese woman in the front row. Perhaps we are offending her.

As if summoned by my thought, she stands and turns to face all five hundred or so women. “When my husband leaves his underwear on the floor,” she says quietly, “I find it useful to nail it to the floor.”

Amid laughter and cheers, this shy young woman seems surprised to find herself laughing, too. She tells the group this is the first time she has ever said anything in public.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mary mcgrory

I am reading a delightful biography of a groundbreaking newspaperwoman, who wrote book reviews (ahem!) before her political coverage began; she would cover 12 political campaigns (and everything in between) in her lengthy and influential career. I am reminded somewhat of Newspaper Titan. But John Norris can tell it better than I can, of course.

In many ways, Mary was as much an anolmaly at the end of her career as she was at its beginning. When she broke through, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, she was the lone female reporter in the room. On the campaign trail, she was one woman surrounded by a hundred men. By the end of her career, she was working in an environment where there were more and more women, most female reporters were married, and employers like the Post provided maternity leave and benefits. To this new generation of women, Mary was a throwback: the woman who took on McCarthy and Nixon; the pioneer who was forced to decide between career and love; a beloved relic from an earlier era who drank with the Kennedys and crafted handwritten thank-you notes. Mary had gone an entire career without ever being the norm.

Stay tuned for my review of the book, followed by my interview with the author.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles

Bibliophiles and historians will be thrilled by this enthusiastic, detailed account of writing throughout history.


Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) undertakes a mammoth topic with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word. Rather than an exhaustive chronicle, however, he has composed an extended meditation, a roaming through the centuries. The result is a collection of narrative examinations of writing as a technology, as a means of wielding power, as artistry and as communication. As Battles quotes it, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” His imagination is captured by this concept in fact and as metaphor, and Palimpsest is in part a drawn-out consideration of “mind as page” and “page as mind” (the titles of its opening and closing chapters).

Battles’s survey ranges from Mesopotamian cuneiform in the fourth century BCE to early printing, word processing and social media. He explores Thoreau’s views on Confucianism, the clay tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the topology of Chinese hanzi and the fascination with writing in Great Expectations. He is intrigued by the politics of the printing press and various typefaces. Historians, writers, philosophers and anthropologists including Socrates, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Ralph Waldo Emerson provide context for the philosophical significance of writing. Battles points out that modern computer code is a type of writing as well, “a kind of text that can’t exist on its own. But what other kind of text has ever existed?”

Among other revelations, Palimpsest elucidates the original meaning of “pirated” literature: “not… the unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s work but the use of a printing press without proper license,” and Allen Ginsberg’s modern redefinition of “graffiti,” which originally referred in the Italian to words or ornaments carved in clay forms. How we learn to write changes as our cultural expectations of writing change; thus what Battles calls a “feedback loop” of change in writing technologies perpetuates. In other words, in an increasingly digital age, Battles argues that writing is in flux–as it has been since its beginnings.

Palimpsest returns more than once to an emphasis on writing as art, and Battles’s own writing style is often decorative. The meandering structure of this expansive essay on writing in history, as well as its formal and academic tone, may pose challenges for some readers. However, the reader and writing fan absorbed by writing’s miscellany will find much to love and sink into in Palimpsest.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the July 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 4 radicals.*

*For my personal reaction to his style, although the quality of writing and research are sure to please other readers.


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