Sunday, May 30, 2010

More Than Petticoats Remarkable Pennysylvania Women by Kate Hertzog

Though the title is rather embarrassing (who thought putting that tagline on this title was necessary), I always enjoy books like these. Sometimes you just want a book that's going to give you a brief overview of someone's life, not the comprehensive history of every time they used the bathroom.

In this case, Remarkable Pennsylvania Women gives the reader at fifteen women with ties to the Keystone State, and why they are important enough to read about. No section is very long, but if the reader wishes to learn more, they can either do a search on their own or refer to the bibliography in the back of the book. Personally, I probably don't need to go and read a lot more on any of these figures, though I might for one or two. However, I really like that the author took time to include this section for those who really do like to get down and dirty in the details.

I must admit to being a bit ashamed that I did not recognize the stories of more than one third of the women in the book. I kinda figured I'd be a bit better steeped in non-traditional PA history than I apparently am. It's easy to pick up on Rachel Carson, of course, but it's not every day you talk about Sybilla Masters, the first woman to get a patent from the King of England and the first person to do that in America, period.

Or there's Margaret Corbin, one of the women who, I've learned over time, fought in the Revolutionary War as a soldier. If you're of a more peaceful mind, try Amanda Berry Smith, an African American who started life as a slave but ended as a missionary who traveled overseas. Is medicine more to your liking? In addition to the Civil War story I knew, I was introduced to Florence Seibert, who worked in the TB test.

These are just a few of the tales that were new to me. Depending on what era of history you've concentrated on the most, your experience will vary, but I'd wager that almost anyone picking up this book will find quite a few new faces staring back at them, with a short set of pages ready to tell you why they are important.

Short is the operative word here. I do admit that, while I like my biographies brief, these sketches are only slightly longer than an encyclopedia entry (does anyone use an encyclopedia anymore?) and thus are lacking in depth. This book is clearly meant to be a sampler, which makes it ideal for the casual reader or a student.

It's the latter group that I think can most benefit from this book. It's important for young people to realize that while we always focus on the biggest names from any conflict or issue, there are a lot of Americans, of all races, genders, and social standing, who came together at one point or another to make this country what it is today. Highlighting women, some famous, some not so well known, gives a student a better sense of context and also gives a chance to look further, if they're so inclined. This is also true of adult readers, of course, but I think it's crucial that a person learning their sense of the world and sense of self see that while George Washington might lead the battle, it takes the Lydia Darraghs of the world to help him do it.

Remarkable Pennsylvania Women may not be a remarkable book, but it is a good introduction to the lesser known side of history. I learned a lot from its brief pages, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for insight into the role of women, particularly those in Pennsylvania, in the making of America.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Drive, They Said Poems About Americans and Their Cars edited by Kurt Brown

Anthologies are always a tricky thing, but I love the mystery that goes into reading one. You never quite know what you're in for, even if you're familiar with some of the authors. A lot of times, it all adds up to luck, even if the book comes with the backing someone you trust.

Drive, They Said was recommended to me by a person I usually agree with in terms of poetry, but this time we're as far apart as a highway with a scenic divider. The theme of this collection is poetry about how Americans relate to their cars, and at least to me, it made for some pretty bland reading.

I probably am not the target audience for this. While I might ogle a classic car, it's the age of the item, not the item itself, that wows me. I can appreciate a fine corvette, but I have no desire to get behind the wheel, not even for a test drive.

I own a car, but it's strictly utilitarian. I don't tinker with it. I don't fret that it's got a few dings from parking lots. I would no sooner change its oil myself than I would volunteer to clean up Three Mile Island. Hell, I've never even washed it. In other words, I'm not in love with cars, just what they can do for me when I need it.

Thus, this was an odd choice but I tried it anyway. Unfortunately, it just didn't register for me at all.

The first problem is that from the get-go, we're separated into gender before we do anything else. I hate gender separation as a rule, and given the subject of cars, that just made matters worse.

So the men get poems that try hard to sound masculine, with references to speeding, drinking, and leaving people behind. The women leave bad men, worry about the danger of being alone, and of course, the safety of their children. There's nothing wrong with these poems, but it feels like Brown as editor tried hard to make sure he ticked off ever gender cliche when compiling his opening sections. That turned me off, and made for tough sledding the rest of the way.

The other sections feature exactly what you'd expect, with no surprises to be found. "Driving into Yourself," "Stopping by the Side of the Road," "Head On," "Driving as Metaphor," "On the Bus," and "Passing Through" all do what they need to do in a way that passes muster but doesn't stretch the reader's comfort zones in any way. It's as though every poem was tested in front of an easily-offended church group. Unlike a highway in the rain with traffic moving far too fast, these poems gave me no sense of danger or thrill.

The section "Driving as Metaphor" ended up feeling far too forced, with the editor choosing the most obvious examples available. The comparisons are forced more often than not, reading more like an exercise for a college class than something I would want to read. In their own context, they probably aren't bad. However, when you read tortured line after tortured line trying to fit in the idea of cars relating to other parts of our life, it just gets to be a bit too much.

Of these sections, only "Head On" features any poem that wasn't apparently given an "inoffensive test" before making it into the collection and even those are edgy only in comparison to what is around them. As a result, I enjoyed it the most, but not enough to make up for the banal nature of the poems I read in the other areas.

There are a few well-known names in here. Joyce Carol Oates has a few entries in the women's ghetto, Robert Bly appears, as does Charles Wright. Wright's poem is one of the best in the collection, using the idea of a road to discuss the various ways people interacted by going to different neighborhoods. ee cummings also makes an appearance in a clumsy poem comparing driving a car to a person new at sex. I admit I've read very little of cummings' work, but I'd like to think he's done better.

Overall, I took a chance on this one, and feel like I came up with a lemon. The theme isn't close enough to me to forgive some bad poetry and the desire to make sure that no one reading this would get upset at a blatant sexual reference or overtly foul language just killed it for me. I'd recommend cruising to a different poetry book, but if you have a car-loving reader in your family, preferably an older one, this book might just work better for them than it did for me.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Baltimore Noir edited by Laura Lippman

This is the third book in Akashic's series of crime anthologies set in cities across the United States and in some cases, the world. I'd really liked the first two books I'd read, but unfortunately I was not charmed at all by the one set in Charm City.

The book starts off pretty good, actually, which is why I was so sad when I hit the second part of the three-section collection and very quickly ran into three adventures that left me cold. Editor Lippman's introductory piece, "Easy as A B C", finds us with a corrupt contractor that cheats on his wife but can't stand it when his lover turns him away. That's a textbook noir plot, and Lippman's snappy writing from the perspective of the killer sets the mood for what I hoped would be more stories in this vein.

The problem is that somewhere along the line, whether to pad the page count (this entry is nearly 100 pages longer than the other two I read, give or take a page) or because she was lacking in stories with a true sense of desperation and grime, we end up getting to the point where there's a cozy with a huge cliche for a solution in the middle of the book.

Now I understand the idea of what makes a story fitting of the noir label is variable depending on who you talk to, and I bet if you asked me twice a few months apart, I might even give you a different answer. But when "Almost Missed It by a Hair" features a woman who does PR for hairdressers solving the crime for her cop sister by using an amateur trick that was old when fellow Baltimorean Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre in the first place, I'm going to cry foul.

That was the only story written by an African American about a city that's overwhelmingly African American and I'd be lying if I said that didn't bother me a bit, especially given the fact that it's not like this anthology is jam-packed with writing gems. I find it a bit hard to believe that there weren't more crime stories written by black authors and set in Baltimore. I find it even harder to believe this when Ben Neihart's "Frog Cycle," possibly the worst story in the collection, doesn't even have any cultural link to Baltimore at all. (Move the exhibit to any other city and it would have worked fine.) I also failed to see anything crime-related about it.

The point of these collections is to spotlight the dark edges of the cities in which the stories are set. And sometimes they do. Robert Ward's "Fat Chance" places a man of Hollywood back into the hells he tried to escape. "Pigtown will Shine Tonight" has a disturbing premise and a character that wants to do the right thing, but also save his skin. "As Seen on TV" by Dan Fesperman skewers the idea of a noir story by having his main character think that he can relive the glories of fictional drama. Those are all great stories that fit the theme.

However, there are just too many that don't. A simple murder to take control of a business or a Scooby-Doo style ghost story, "Goodwood Gardens", do not provide the reader with anything grimy or creepy. I'm afraid that the multiple inclusions of violence against women don't count, either.

Horrific crimes aren't noir, they're terrible crimes. They no more fit into a book like this than an armchair detective piece. You have to give them a feel like the characters have no way out. Time and time again as this anthology progressed, I just wasn't feeling that sense of desperation or situational helplessness. I got in in bits and pieces, such as when David Simon provides us with a drug addict who can't do the right thing in "Stainless Steele," but that's just not enough to carry this anthology through.

Anthologies rest on the backs of their editors, and in this case, I think Ms. Lippman and I have a different definition of what makes for a good noir story. She seemed to be going for a very general idea of revenge crime, if you look at all the stories as a whole. Had this been called "Uncharmed Lives: Baltimore Gets Revenge" I might have felt better about the contents, some of which were pretty well written. But I don't think revenge automatically equals noir, nor do I feel that Ms. Lippman explored enough avenues of possible stories (a lot of these authors all have ties to the Baltimore Sun) to give us a good variety of material.

Overall, Baltimore Noir was a disappointing entry in the Noir series. But after taking a break to finish up things before the move--to Baltimore, as things happen--I'll definitely keep reading more of these anthologies. I'd just recommend that you give this particular volume a pass.