Girls to the Front

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

publication date: 2010
pages: 367 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-06-180636-0

For anyone unfamiliar with the Riot Grrrl movement, it is, according to Wikipedia:

an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in the early 1990s, in Washington, D.C., and the greater Pacific Northwest . . . . In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action, and activism.

That definition was about as much as I knew about Riot Grrrl, so I decided to read this book and learn a little more about the movement.

Sara Marcus obviously felt very passionate about the movement and spent time collecting and investigating it. Her bibliography included hours of interviews, Riot Grrrl zines, many books and essays, and more. However, this passion did not translate into a cohesive or informative story. Marcus related several anecdotes and events, but with no coherent theme or objective. In fact, the first morsel of a theme that I spotted was in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book.

There were many problems with Marcus’s storytelling of Riot Grrrl beyond the lack of coherence. It was bogged-down in name-dropping, for example. There were several pages about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who were barely tangentially related to Riot Grrrl. Many passages also contained Marcus’s rants and raves about things with no appreciable connection to Riot Grrrl or to each other. At one point, Marcus sent up the song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Marcus snarked:

True youth rebellion is always elsewhere, and verily, ’tis better that way, without the chaos and collateral damage and inconvenient principles that always seem to mar such movements in close-up.

If you’re wondering what this idea has to do with a mediocre 1990s pop song, I am too.

One thing Marcus was competent at was accurately portraying her subjects and the Riot Grrrl movement. This meant that the portrayal was not always favorable. There’s this story where members of Riot Grrrl punish some “jerky boys” at a concert:

And once, at a huge alienating jock-filled Fugazi/Slant 6 show at the University of Maryland where some jerky boys booed Erika’s onstage announcement about Riot Grrrl, the girls went into the women’s bathroom and inked WRITE RAPIST’S NAMES HERE on the wall; one girl from the college asked to borrow Erika’s marker and wrote a name up on the wall right away.

I would recommend this book only if you have a burning interest in this topic.

2/6: many problems

A.V. Club
L.A. Times
bitchmedia

Can’t and Won’t

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

publication date: 2014
pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0374118587

If I were to write this review in the style of Lydia Davis’s new book Can’t and Won’t, it would look something like this:

A Review of a Book That I Read

I sit here at my laptop; the cheap laptop that I purchased some years ago while I was drunk in an electronics store with my boyfriend who I had been with for many months after we drank several higher-priced beers, and I thoughtfully write this review. My fingers and thumbs tap the hard black keyboard, which has white writing on it – the writing is in the shape of the letters or symbols that appear on screen as I hit the keys.

My mind ponders this book, which is a collection of stories and observations. I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt because I always give books the benefit of the doubt, even if they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. However, I can’t do that with this book because as I read it, as my eyes moved from left to right over the off-white pages in the act of reading, my brain was screaming at me to stop reading, to stop my eyes’ movement, to sleep, to dream, to never wake again; or at the very least to read something else.

I reflect on what others would optimistically call the content of Can’t and Won’t. The author, who I don’t know but I’m sure is personally known by a great number of people, seemed to think of this book as a repository for any wisp of an idea that flew through her mind, much as a good book would be a repository for fully-developed good ideas that the author culled and deliberately chose. Much of this book doubles as a dream journal, with Davis soberly relaying the plots of her dreams, including the two dreams where she went to the bank, which was different but she knew it was a bank, you know how it is in dreams; the dream where she walked through a hallway with a white dog; and the dream where she had a bodyguard.

Perhaps the most maddening portion of this very maddening book, was when Davis spent 15 pages, which was one of the longest passages, and when I say that I don’t mean a hallway but rather an assemblage of words in a book, stating her observations about some cows, in a way that I can only describe as Randy Newmanesque:

They are motionless until they move again, one foot and then another – fore, hind, fore, hind – and stop in another place, motionless again. . . .

They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or: 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.

Today, they are all three lying down. . . .

At dusk, when our light is on indoors, they can’t be seen, though they are there in the field across the road. If we turn off the light and look out into the dusk, gradually they can be seen again.

Like 17 vacuum cleaners sitting on a showroom floor after the 18th vacuum cleaner has just been purchased, this book sucked.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Christian Science Monitor
The Boston Globe

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some Are so Poor by David S. Landes

publication date: 1999
pages: 531 (not including back matter)
ISBN: 0-393-31888-5

This book existed on a spectrum of poor writing. At best, David S. Landes’s writing was imprecise; at worst, it was racist. At its most average, it was merely inaccurate. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes attempted to explain, through a historical lens, the current economic circumstances of different nations. In his mind, these nations could most easily be split into the “West” and the “Rest.”

The best thing I can say about this book is Landes clearly had a lot of knowledge rattling around in his head. He shared detailed facts ranging from the most plentiful agricultural products in 18th century England, to the ships and sailors that roamed the Indian Ocean before England established its dominance in that region. However, that’s about all the good I can say about the book. There were just so many problems.

A very basic issue was that Landes rarely provided numbers to support his assertions. Further, when he did provide numbers, he didn’t provide the sources or the sources were vaguely defined. As an example, here is a passage discussing the income gap between countries:

Is the gap still growing today? At the extremes, clearly yes. Some countries are not only not gaining; they are growing poorer, relatively and sometimes absolutely. Others are barely holding their own. Others are catching up.

What an unhelpful passage. What are these countries? Where did you get these ideas?

Next is an example of Landes’s writing that falls on the spectrum I was discussing above. His language was probably just imprecise, but it could be that Landes actually believed what he was writing, in which case he was obviously inaccurate. In this passage, Landes was discussing the health problems that exist in tropical regions. He concluded his discussion with this ridiculous sentence: “The very existence of a specialty known as tropical medicine tells the character of the problem.” Ah yes, much like the existence of gynecology shows how inhospitable and unhealthy vaginas are.

Here is a passage that exemplifies when Landes’s writing would fall somewhere in between inaccurate and racist. In this instance he was discussing how Europe contained diverse people throughout its history, in contrast to other regions in the world.

Europe, in contrast, did not have all its eggs in one basket. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol invaders from the Asian steppe made short work of the Slavic and Khazar kingdoms of what is now Russia and Ukraine, but they still had to cut their way through an array of central European states, including the new kingdoms of their predecessors in invasion – the Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Hungarians, and Bulgars – before they could even begin to confront the successor states of the Roman empire.

The implication of his discussion was that other regions, such as Asia, the Americas, and Africa, did not have a diverse group of peoples. I’m no historian, but just a quick check of Wikipedia shows this discussion to be inaccurate. (Asia, South America, Africa)

I have so many more examples of poor and frustrating writing from this book. But I think I’ve made my point. So I will only add one more comment: about the glowing reviews on the book’s jacket. I don’t understand how anyone who read the full 532 rambling and sometimes incoherent pages of this book could enjoy it or find it helpful. The only thing I can think is the reviewers read only a synopsis and brief passage.

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book, which are somehow positive:

New York Times
University of California at Los Angeles
goodreads

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

publication date: 2003
pages: 373
ISBN: 0-385-50951-0

Why? Why did I read Under the Banner of Heaven? More importantly, why did Jon Krakauer write it?

Under the Banner of Heaven explains, sometimes in inane detail, sometimes in maddeningly broad conclusions, the history of the Mormon faith. The book discusses the history of Mormonism, from its inception with Joseph Smith in New York, to its exodus to Missouri and Ohio, and to its final resting place in Utah under Brigham Young. It then describes the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter by Brenda’s brothers-in-law.

However, Under the Banner of Heaven isn’t a history text. Although I am not a history buff, I enjoy history and I enjoy reading about the events of the past. But this book is not a history book, as evidenced by Krakauer’s derision toward his subjects, and sometimes even toward his victims. One small example of this is when Krakauer is discussing Ervil LeBaron, a fundamentalist Mormon who murdered another fundamentalist leader. Krakauer describes LeBaron as “240 pounds, stood six feet four inches tall, and knew how to nurse a grudge. A dashing figure, he was found irresistibly attractive by many otherwise sensible women.” Shut up, Krakauer! Don’t even attempt to understand the “many” “sensible women” who dared find a man “irresistibly attractive.” Throughout the book, passages like this indicated to me that Krakauer has no respect for the people he is discussing; unfortunately, these weren’t characters, these are real people who deserve dignity.

Additionally, Krakauer seems to equate run-of-the-mill Mormonism with fundamental Mormonism, even though he admits that the Mormon church commonly renounces fundamental sects. As an example, Krakauer discusses the Mormon fundamentalist sect in Colorado City, Arizona, which the Mormon church has renounced, and then applies his fundamentalism research to Mormonism as a whole. This is a major logical and historical misstep. If the Mormon church has explicitly stated that “No, we don’t agree with what is happening down there in Colorado City, and, in fact, let us help you stop it,” then what lessons does Krakauer expect me to learn about Mormonism, its history, and its future?

So, if it’s not history then what is it? Is it persuasion? Is Krakauer trying to convince me that all Mormons are bad, that I should distrust all Mormons I meet on the street? Or should I believe that all religions are noxious? (In that vein, it’s probably no coincidence this book was published shortly after 9/11.) To be honest, I’m just not sure.

Krakauer also has an aggravating writing style. He rarely attached an exact number to a figure; instead, the things in question were “numerous” or “legion.” For example, Brian David Mitchell was one of “untold multitudes currently practicing polygamy throughout the western United States, Canada, and Mexico.” How many is a multitude? Fifty? Six thousand? Half a million? Does Krakauer even know? And why are they “untold?” Only because Krakauer didn’t actually tell? Krakauer’s prose also contained an inordinate amount of flourish. A child is a “pint-size tornado with a pertinacious blond cowlick.” A meadow that was the site of Mormon violence is a “bucolic sanctuary . . . now synonymous with one of the most chilling episodes in the history of the American West – an episode that exemplified the fanaticism and concomitant brutality of a culture that would be so enthusiastically idealized a century later by Dan Lafferty and his fundamentalist brethren.” What a mouthful!

The subject matter of Under the Banner of Heaven was undoubtedly interesting. However, you’d be better off just Wikipedia-ing Mormonism.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Entertainment Weekly