The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser; introduction by Catherine Venable Moore

Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead was originally published as a poem cycle in her 1938 collection U.S. 1. It was unearthed, if you will, by Catherine Venable Moore, and republished in a new edition in 2018 with Moore’s introduction. (Disclosure: Moore was a visiting faculty member in my MFA program when I was a student there; I have met her, very briefly.) That introduction is lengthy, occupying fully half the pages of this book, which I hadn’t realized in advance; that is to say, while Rukeyser’s poetry is its raison d’etre, Moore’s essay is indispensable to the reading experience I’m reviewing here. That essay was published in Oxford American (a magazine I adore) in 2016, in its entirety – I did a pretty close page-by-page spot check, and if the two versions differ, it’s by words or punctuation marks, not paragraphs. (OA actually offers more images, too.) You can read Moore’s work here, and you absolutely should (I write, at the risk of unselling a copy of this book; but you will still want Rukeyser’s poems!).

The subject is the years-long industrial disaster at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Miners were tasked with both tunnel construction and the mining of silica, a convenient byproduct of the tunneling; they worked without protective equipment and inhaled quantities of silica, which caused silicosis (as it was known at the time it would), of which they died by the hundreds. Most of the miners were migratory Black Southerners housed in temporary work camps. The death toll is still unknown.

Rukeyser, a young lefty poet/journalist, traveled to West Virginia to document these events in 1936, as the last of the miners testified before a congressional committee even as they coughed and died. She was accompanied by a photographer friend (whose photographs, but two, were lost). The Book of the Dead was Rukeyser’s result: documentary, poetry, journalism, testament. Moore’s essay places this and much more information in context so that the reader is ready to appreciate Rukeyser’s poems when they come. Recall that I am infinitely more at home with essays than with poetry, but I found Moore’s work to be very moving, beautifully done, and informative. I found the poems more challenging, and I would not have gotten as much out of them without Moore’s help. Perhaps my favorite was the title poem, which is also available online at The Poetry Foundation, for whom I am grateful.

I’m very glad I spent a day immersed in this story, certainly an important one in our national and regional history. This was a bit of homework before, hopefully, visiting the recently dedicated memorial myself. I am very glad that Moore did the work of getting these poems and this story out into the world again.


Rating: 8 hills of glass.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

Another one hit way out of the park by Liz. I no longer remember what she said, but I think it involved some superlatives; I bought the book and finally got around to it and now have some superlatives of my own. It was just early April when I read this book, but I’m confident stating this will be the best book I read all year.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is one sort of book I love, in that it involves several threads woven together. In her prologue, Lulu Miller pits our most precious loves against the force of a capitalized Chaos. “Chaos will crack them from the outside–with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet–or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories…” Etc. Then we first meet David Starr Jordan, as Miller did. He was a taxonomist specializing in fish. An earthquake destroyed his collection of thousands of specimens, dashing them in their glass jars to the ground, separating them from their identifying tags. To which he responded by hand-stitching tag to fish specimen, and starting over. Miller is entranced by this “attack on Chaos.” She struggles herself with the forces that tend to defeat us, and wonders of Jordan: “Who are you?… A cautionary tale? Or a model of how to be?

From here we accompany Miller on her study of Jordan – his life and his thoughts – in search of a model for how to be, how to live with joy and be indefatigable in the face of all frustrations, all forms of Chaos. Why Fish Don’t Exist is thus partly a biography of Jordan and a layperson’s introduction to fish taxonomy and its principles. (The title is not a joke. There are existential arguments and philosophies to be discovered, too.) It’s also part memoir, as we get to know Miller better, the demons she’s faced and the tools she’s used to try to mend herself. Her father is a delightedly nihilistic scientist, with some parallels to Jordan, which is of course fascinating. The book is perhaps most of all an inquiry into Miller’s original concern: how to live and not despair, not choose to die, in such an overwhelmingly imperfect world as this one.

Miller’s writing style is colorful, phantasmagoric, impassioned, with high highs and low lows. She sees beauty and desolation in the world, and describes them evocatively. Among Jordan’s discoveries are

A small lantern fish with glowing spots, “which had risen from the deeps in a storm.” A tiny, rainbow-scaled fish that was found inside the belly of a hake, which was found inside the belly of an albacore. A crimson fish with yellow stripes that they nicknamed “the Spanish flag.”

The only fish he ever named after himself, “breathtaking, absolutely, but frightening, too, in the way of an M.C. Escher drawing.” “Its fins look like dragon wings, serrated and sharp.”

Without ruining too much of the story, I will say that Jordan, like all our heroes, is not purely heroic. He turns out to be in fact profoundly problematic, as our heroes tend to, and so Miller must wrestle with that, too. Chaos again. His methods are ruthless –

He began inventing more aggressive techniques for capturing fish. Blowing them out of the water with dynamite, hammering them out of coral, and perhaps most ingenious, for the “myriads of little fishes” that hid inside the tiny cracks in tide pools: poison.

and he’s harder on people than he is on fish. In more than a few ways I won’t give away here he will disturb our modern sensibilities. He disappoints us, as he disappoints Miller – horribly – but her own perspective never disappoints.

Illustrations by Kate Samworth open each chapter and advance their contents; these lovely black-and-whites resemble woodcuts (if that’s not in fact what they are) and will be part of what makes this book memorable for me. I think Samworth deserved to have her name on the book’s cover.

Transcendent. Best book of the year. Wrecked me, but in the best way. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.


Rating: 10 holotypes.

Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do by Tracy Dawson

Humorous profiles of more than 30 women in history who broke gender barriers offer righteous inspiration.

In 2013, television writer and actor Tracy Dawson was passed over for a job writing shows because they didn’t have any “female needs.” Naturally infuriated, she became interested in women over the centuries whose opportunities and options have been limited by their sex. From this curiosity is born Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do, in which Dawson profiles several dozen women from the 1400s BCE through the present. In a pithy, one-liner-laden style, she brings these remarkable and little-known histories to light with comedic flair.

Some of the women are classics: Joan of Arc, Kathrine Switzer and a chapter’s worth of once-anonymous literary figures who are now household names (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, George Sand). But the majority are more obscure: Maria Toorpakai, professional squash player born in 1990 who defied the ultra-conservative norms of her region of Pakistan when she disguised herself as a boy to play sports; Hannah Snell, who served as a Royal Marine in the 1750s; Ellen Craft, who fled slavery in 1848 disguised as a white male slaveowner. A teenaged Dorothy Lawrence, rejected as war correspondent in World War I, took herself to the front by boat, bicycle and soldier’s garb. The 1890s entertainer and male impersonator Florence Hines, 1941 comic book creator Tarpé Mills and 1980s miner and entrepreneur Pili Hussein are among these diverse, colorful stories. Others are antiheroes, like witch-pricker Christian Caddell or all-around scoundrel Catalina de Erauso. Dawson is careful to point out that her focus is on “women who dressed as men to gain access and opportunity, not on gender identity,” since the latter is notoriously difficult to parse from a historical perspective, particularly since many of the women she profiles have left scant records. Their motivations vary as widely as other aspects of their identities and stories, but each of these women pushed boundaries in ways that remain inspirational for Dawson and her readers today.

Let Me Be Frank is peppered with punchy jokes in an informal, conversational tone that suits Dawson’s background in television. Joan of Arc is compared to Beyoncé; U.K.-born Annie Hindle’s stage name is received with “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Dawson delivers these historical profiles, born of research, in a lighthearted voice. Tina Berning’s portraits evoke the women’s personalities and literally color the narratives. The result is an easy-to-read, eye-opening look at female bravery amid the sexism and misogyny throughout history; it is funny and rousing and proud.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 clusters of tanzanite.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, trans. by Adrian Nathan West

Wide-ranging, mystical, crazed and inspired, this singular novel explores theoretical physics through a series of weird, engrossing human stories.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is an astonishing historical novel of physics, war, human weakness and quantum physics. In a lovely translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, the fictionalized histories of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and more come alive to disquiet and intrigue readers.

The book opens with Hermann Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine and the suicides of many Nazi leaders by cyanide in the final months of World War II. It gets only a little less grim from there. But even with such bleak subject matter, Labatut’s imaginative evocations of disturbed minds from the rarified ranks of mathematics and physics are thoroughly captivating and strangely lovely, joining science with mysticism in surprising ways. “In the deepest substrate of all things, physics had not found the solid, unassailable reality Schrödinger and Einstein had dreamt of, ruled over by a rational God pulling the threads of the world, but a domain of wonders and rarities, borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.”

Labatut’s narrative travels in time and space, covering the development of pesticides, chemical weapons and Prussian blue pigment; painting, literature and opera; the existential angst of particle and quantum physics; eroticism and fever dreams. A young Heisenberg interrupts Schrödinger’s lecture to argue about the nature of subatomic particles. Later the reader sees Heisenberg feverish, ill, madly dreaming of spectral lines and harmonically bound electrons while reading Goethe’s poems inspired by the Persian mystic Hafez. Schrödinger also raves, theorizing and obsessing over the adolescent daughter of his physician. Lesser-known scientific figures include Karl Schwarzschild, the soldier who first exactly solved Einstein’s equation of general relativity and died shortly after; Shinichi Mochizuki, who revolutionized mathematics and then withdrew from the field; Alexander Grothendieck, who fled society to live as a hermit and also gave up mathematics entirely; and the seventh duc de Broglie, a “timid prince” whose Nobel Prize did not help him stomach the infighting among scholars of theoretical physics. These are the figures and the stories that have shaped major advances in science in the modern era; they also verge on insanity.

This astonishing novel blends forms: lyrical, inventive and also rooted in history, concerned with the overlaps of genius and madness, innovation and destruction. “The physicist–like the poet–should not describe the facts of the world, but rather generate metaphors and mental connections…. That aspect of nature required a completely new language,” writes Labatut, and likewise he offers a new way of writing about science and history. The vision of reality painted by When We Cease to Understand the World is terrifying but finely wrought, and will live long in readers’ minds.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cats.

movie: Summer of Soul (2021)

I got to see this back at the Pickford in Bellingham with my parents, and it was a real treat.

All the voices I’ve been hearing about this movie, from friends and from reviews, have been unanimous, and I’m in agreement: this is a very special film, from a few angles. Summer of Soul is a documentary mining archival footage, never before seen, from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. The footage sat in storage for some 50 years; the same summer, Woodstock stole the spotlight, and this historic event (or events – the festival took place over six weekends) faded away like so much Black American history has. It’s thanks to Questlove, of the Roots, director of this film, that we’re learning about it now. The festival showcased jazz, funk, gospel, blues and soul, via names like Stevie Wonder, BB King, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Fifth Dimension, and many more. These performers played to tens of thousands in Harlem each weekend (an estimated 300,000 total). Here we see original footage spliced with recent interviews with performers and audience members, and other historical footage for context, so that the music is set against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the assassinations of the 1960s, and more.

The festival footage is entrancing, and the music is transcendent, and if the film had stuck to that content, it would have been worth seeing. But including the historical context lifts it up several levels, making it not only a joy to see but Important. The context is a little harder to watch – it’s serious, especially because it highlights how far we haven’t come. But the music remains an absolute joy, too. If there are moments that might make you cry (Jesse Jackson recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final moments to the crowd), the footage of the sublime musical performances rarely failed to make me smile wide, as the crowd did – I loved those shots of so many joyful people of all ages and appearances. Many of those interviewed, both musicians and audience, commented on how significant it was to look out at a crowd of that many Black people gathered together. (There were non-Black attendees, but very few.) I guess I was a little surprised that Harlemites would feel that way; but the gathering itself was unprecedented, wasn’t it. This felt like an important point, especially because so many mentioned it.

Depending on age and background, some viewers will find this film very educational; even those familiar with the time, place and milieu will find something enlightening, and the music is sure to blow every mind. It sent me out of that theatre feeling more full and nourished than I went in. It also comments on ever-relevant parts of our ongoing history as a nation. Very strongly recommended, for music fans and for us all.


Rating: 9 smiling faces.

Above the Smoke: A Family Album of Pocahontas County Fire Towers by Leanna Alderman and Eleanor Mahoney

Loaned by a friend who found out I’m into fire towers, this book has a particularly local focus, and I dug it. This project began when LeAnna Alderman, as a VISTA volunteer at Allegheny Mountain Radio, interviewed a retired fire lookout, and was so absorbed that she pursued more such interviews. She left the station before she could finish the collection, which was continued by Eleanor Mahoney (also a VISTA volunteer) until this book was built and eventually published some six years after Alderman’s first interview. It consists of three main sections: background on fire lookouts and fire suppression efforts in the US and in Appalachia, including the Depression and the CCC; information on each of the twelve towers in Pocahontas County; and best and finally, twelve interviews with retired towermen and one towerwoman, and their family members.

I think this slim book would serve as a good introduction to the idea of lookout towers; I didn’t need that introduction, but found it fascinating as a look at one small region’s relationship to the system. In comparison to the Gila out west (an example I know pretty well), this story involves considerably more emphasis on the Depression and the CCC, and tower use ended precipitously and much earlier in these parts. It was interesting to see the lookouts’ opinions of what came after (smoke spotting via aircraft! which was shortlived) – most were not impressed. And it was interesting to see a small community’s impression of the lookout system in general. As part of a larger network of forestry and roads/infrastructure operations, the lookout towers provided critically needed employment and developed a relationship with the forests, and an understanding of fire prevention a la Smokey the Bear. I did find it interesting that Above the Smoke didn’t deal with the idea that fire is both natural and necessary for healthy forests – a relatively recent idea in the officialdom of forestry (etc.), but important to Fire Season, for example.

I loved learning about a forgotten chunk of old growth: “The 140-acre tract of virgin red spruce forest located near the tower was named the Gaudineer Scenic Area. This tract was never logged because of discrepancies between competing land surveys – this tiny slice of old growth forest survived because it wasn’t on any company’s map!” (I like to think that there may have been some intention in this ‘error’.) And mention of the Thorny Mountain tower was noted – “Hopefully, one day, Thorny Mountain will reopen to the public.” Well, it has, although it’s awfully hard to book. I hope to snag a couple of nights there myself next year.

This book is short and modest in its scope. The interviews themselves remain faithfully in the vernacular, which I enjoyed. They provide a glimpse of life in a particular time and place, and I’m super grateful to the folks who collected these memories for us all. Thanks for the loan, DB.


Rating: 7 cans of peaches.

movie: Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2018)

I had left Italy. I lost the Italian landscape and architecture and something else had to take its place. This stimulated the formation of inner images. I started working with passion when I discovered that I had things of my own that had to come out, that I could express something others don’t have.

What a beautiful, completely absorbing and eventually transcendent film. For starters, something like Fantastic Fungi, there is such a rich body of work in the weird world of M.C. Escher that any proper documentary should turn out to be visually stunning, and this one does the job properly. I loved the animations of his prints, which it turns out he’d imagined happening. (There was a moment when a tessellated lizard clicked, came to life, and clambered out of its print. Hops lost his shit.) What I didn’t see coming was such a fascinating life – I’d known nothing of Escher the man, I guess, and in fact hadn’t realized how recently he lived and worked, and therefore how World War II and the rise of fascism had affected his life. I had not expected Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) to be onscreen early, telling the amusing story of Escher’s claiming he was a mathematician and not an artist at all. The Escher that emerges here is grumpy and flummoxed by the hippies’ interest in his work, and their annoying tendency to colorize his black-and-whites with such bright hues. His eldest son is there too, describing (chillingly) how the family chose to leave Italy 1935 after the son (as a small child) showed a disturbing interest in playing the baby fascist. This whole story was fascinating, whimsical, frequently funny and also pathos-ridden.

I appreciated Escher the romantic (in his relationship with his wife), the curmudgeon, and the tortured artist:

What I can say is that no print ever succeeds. They all fail. Simply because I always pursue a vision that cannot be realized… my prints, none of which were every made with the primary aim of making something beautiful, simply cause me headaches… that is the reason that I never feel fully at home among my colleagues. They pursue beauty first and foremost. Perhaps I only pursue wonder.

And this film was simply mind-blowing. The music, the diegetic sound, the still photography, the video of landscapes and architectures referred to in Escher’s work, the animations from his work, the delightfully performed narration (“told in his own words from hundreds of letters, diaries and notes”) by Stephen Fry – it all came together for a very special experience. I’m so glad my parents clued me in. (This has inspired purchase of an Escher art book, so stay tuned for more reviews. Always more.) Definitely recommended.


Rating: 9 steps.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Liz sent me a clipping from The New York Times Book Review recommending this book, which turned out to be a happy synchronicity in two ways: one, I had had the book on my shelves for years, still bearing a sticker from the library where I worked when I first met Liz. Two, I stuck that clipping, that slip of paper, in the book as a reminder, and the book turns out to be in some ways about little slips of paper, which I had learned by the time I found the clipping in its pages again. Good work as ever, Liz.

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a fine example of creative nonfiction writing of the less-personal kind: not memoir, but history; but history told with a novelist’s eye. This Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is for word-fans, of course – that OED mention has pulled them in – but also for readers who enjoy an absorbing historical narrative.

The Professor, here, is the Scottish Dr. James Murray, teacher and philologist who was eventually recruited to take on a formidable role: the editorship of a project of such enormity that most thought it could not be done. Here, Winchester backs up to give us a quick history of lexicography (Samuel Johnson figures centrally). The new project attempted something unprecedented: to define every word in the English language, not only those deemed “difficult” or somehow deserving of promotion; to describe rather than prescribe how they were used; and to record the history of each word, using quotations from written material, including the identification of each word’s first entry in written history. The philologists and word-nerds who undertook this goal repeatedly declared that they thought it would take a handful of volumes or a handful of years; it would take more than seventy years to publish its first “complete” version in twelve volumes, which of course needed immediate supplementing and updating. Dr. Murray was the editor and boss of this project, which would become the OED, in one of its earliest incarnations (the one that stuck).

That’s the title’s Professor. And then there was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American who spent his childhood in Ceylon with missionary parents, then trained as a medical doctor at Yale, served as a surgeon for the Union army in the American Civil War, and was later institutionalized for his delusions. Enjoying a little freedom in London in 1872, those delusions convinced him that he was pursuing one of the bad men who abducted and molested him at night, which is how he came to shoot and kill an impoverished local brewery worked named George Merrett, who left behind a pregnant wife and seven small children. For this, Minor would be “detained in safe custody… until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.” He spent nearly the next fifty years of his life in an asylum in Broadmoor, just outside of London, “a certified criminal lunatic.”

Winchester offers that Minor’s life was saved, in a sense, when he came across an advertisement from Murray, seeking volunteers to read… well, everything, and search out the quotations needed to write what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor happily had some spending money (his family was well-off, and he drew a pension from his military service), and the good graces of the asylum leadership at Broadmoor let him build a prodigious library of rare and old books. Aside from these he had nothing but time, and created his own system of indexing that changed the way he was able to serve Murray and the OED. Over decades, he would serve as one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the project, sending in tens of thousands of little slips of paper with words and quoted texts carefully penned. He and Murray would build a friendship, and together they built a book. It is Winchester’s conclusion that while Merrett’s murder was tragic, and Minor’s life another tragedy, they were both necessary to contribute to something of a miracle in lexicography.

Liz’s clipping from the NYTBR (by Charlie Savage) calls The Professor and the Madman a “mashup of erudition and melodrama,” and I think that is a fine description. There is plenty of hearty history and lexicographic detail here, which I loved. There is also a definitely flair for the dramatic, and there were a few points where I didn’t love Winchester’s editorial tone. (A laugh at the expense of one dictionary reader and then “one of the women readers” – why that detail? – or a snobbish note about a slum. He could be a bit creepy about the naked girls on the Ceylon beaches. I didn’t care for the way he characterizes the stepmother as “so often the cause of problems for male children.”) There’s no question that this is a novelistic history, in the spirit of Erik Larson or Jon Krakauer – who were among my first experiences with creative nonfiction. By novelistic I mean that the storytelling is clearly meant to be entertaining: an eye for the colorful detail, a leaning into suspense, even a bit of a red herring here or there. It’s great fun. When Samuel Johnson is “damned” as “a wretched etymologist,” I cackled.

Chapters open with dictionary definitions of a word that will figure in that chapter’s narrative. This was a fun way to keep the OED in our sights and a little history in our perspective. There were a number of words and phrases in the text that I had to go look up, too: manqué, astrakhan, vade mecum, pudicity, rebatos, Rhinegrave, perukes, nostalgie de la boue, tocsin, rebarbative, swingeing… and you know I always enjoy that part of my reading, too. (Haven’t convinced my students yet that it’s fun to learn new words, but I’m working on it.) So again, is this a book for word-nerds and OED fans? Emphatically yes; but not only for them (us). It’s also just a ripping tale, a bit sensational and pathos-ridden. If you like dramatic historical fiction, this one is for you, too.

Not perfect, no, but enormous fun.


Rating: 7 catchwords.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX by Karen Blumenthal

My Comp II classes got their library instruction early in the semester from our library director, who ran some searches on the big screen for them, including a number using Title IX as the sample topic. So I several times saw this title go across the screen, as a print, hard-copy book in the library on the topic. It’s a “juvenile” book, recommended for ages 8-12. I was curious, so I checked it out. (Why is this juvenile book in our college library? Who knows, but it got here by donation. I’m only the second person to check it out. I suspect our print collection doesn’t see much movement, even outside the juvenile shelves.)

Ages 8-12, sure; there were some points that were a little remedial for me, like the definition of a filibuster and how the legislature works, although I daresay many of us could use a review even there. And one of the points the book makes very well is that establishing federal law is wildly arduous, often a process that takes years, and much negotiation and compromise and heartache. The quest for near-consensus is admirable in theory, but in practice often means very slow or no progress.

Aside from a few issues that I didn’t need explained quite so well, though, even this ‘juvenile’ book was an excellent narrative. What the heck is Title IX? How did we get here? How far have we come? I have to say that I’ve never actually sat down to learn the story in such chronological fashion, and this book for 8-to-12-year-olds was engrossing.

When I started teaching college, I thought of Title IX as being the legislation that said girls could play sports too. When I was a little girl, that’s how I heard about it. I had some direct experience of the law, like when my middle school established a soccer team in my 8th grade year and because there was just the one team, it was necessarily coed. A few girlfriends and I got to play with the boys, and it was both a point of pride and at the same time no big deal. And I knew Title IX was the reason. But then I got to teach college, and Title IX had whole new dimensions. Nobody cares if the English professor knows the rules about equal sports opportunities, but it was very much a part of my training to know that I’m a mandatory reporter of disclosures of sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. That’s all Title IX, too: how little I knew. In its simplest form, this is legislation meant to address sex discrimination in educational settings. It’s been applied to equal pay and employment opportunities for teachers, admissions opportunities for students, access to fields of study, and more. But sports, it seems, remains the most visible and well-known area affected by Title IX, as evidenced by Blumenthal’s title.

(My classrooms are full of female athletes. I wonder if they realize how new a thing this still is.)

Let Me Play is a well-produced book. Chapters explain the context for Title IX, including the struggles for civil rights in the wider world, not only for women but for Black people and other people of color. It begins with women’s suffrage and situates events against two world wars. The text is written for a younger audience but is unafraid to use proper terminology (like filibuster!); I wonder if the finer points of government aren’t a bit complex for the stated age group, but what do I know. There are a good number of images, mostly photographs, and quick biographies of important figures along the way: mainly female athletes and legislators. Key events in history, sports, and politics flesh out the world in which Title IX was situated. I’m a fan of this model.

I also like the chapter titles, which are cute and help track progress over time.

There were a few moments I thought Blumenthal could have expanded the generally forward-thinking, inclusive nature of her book. References to “both genders” are out of date with our understanding of more than just the binary possibilities. In a sidebar she honors the dads who support their daughters, when I think the moms could probably have used a mention of their own. The author joins certain legislators in laughing at the ridiculousness of outlawing father-son and mother-daughter events, but I think that humor is misplaced, if we think about the experiences of sons with single mothers, daughters with single fathers, and all sorts of other family models (including nonbinary folks). This book was published in 2005, and times change quickly.

These instances aside, it’s a generally feel-good story about a long, fraught, painful process that has awarded girls and women options we didn’t used to enjoy. Importantly, too, Blumenthal does not stop at the feel-good story of success, but emphasizes that all is not now perfect (boys are still encouraged far more than girls are to pursue STEM subjects, for examples) and that these rights can always be stripped away. I have a lot of respect for her project here, and I find Let Me Play to be an awfully informative, moving, and important book for readers of all ages. (Also, I have never seen such copious endnotes, bibliography, research notes, further reading, and index in a book for children.) The clear storytelling and careful explanations that make it work for younger readers will benefit some older ones, too. I learned some history, and I was riveted at every moment. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 7 athletic bras.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.
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