The Witches

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff9780316200608

publication date: 2015
pages: 498 (including notes, index, etc.)
ISBN: 978-0-316-20060-8

In The Witches, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff presented a picture of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. She mainly focused on the events of 1692, although she included a little background information and some of the shame-faced aftermath.

In and around Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, more than 100 people were jailed for witchcraft, over half of which confessed. Ultimately, 20 people were executed. The accusations began with four teenage women, who were afflicted with seizures and other maladies. The young women accused several, some of which accused several more, who in turn accused several more – until, in the fall of 1692, some 120 were accused. If an accused witch confessed, the courts were more lenient. Of all the accused who went to trial, only one had confessed to witchcraft – the rest denied until the end. By October of that year, 20 had been executed and the sitting governor of Massachusetts, astonished by the proceedings, dismissed the witchcraft court from any further trials. The trials picked back up again in 1693, but at that point the fervor had died down and the accused were found not guilty or were pardoned.

This book was incredibly well-researched and detailed. Schiff obviously spent time investigating primary sources and reading secondary sources. She included many incidents and episodes from that time period.

However, the book was muddled by Schiff’s tone and writing style. First, she wrote as though the accusations were truth, which she plopped down in the middle of discussions about the trials or about the village. That led to surreal and confusing passages.

Additionally, Schiff wrote in a very convoluted way. Here’s one of the more tiresome sentences:

And if you intended to live in a state of nerve-racking insecurity, in expectation of ambush and meteorological rebuke – on the watch for every brand of intruder, from the “ravening wolves of heresy” to the “wild boars of tyranny,” as a 1694 narrative had it – seventeenth-century Massachusetts, that rude and howling wilderness, was the place for you.

Further, she wrote in a sarcastic style, as though the whole episode was one big joke that the Puritans weren’t in on. For instance, after a short discussion about the torture that certain accused were subjected to, she included this (lame) joke:

Had [accused] Proctor attended the [witchcraft] hearings he might have commented on a different brand of torture: The authorities pummeled the Andover facts into shape.

I hate to cry “Too soon!” about torture and death that occurred over 300 years ago, but these were still peoples’ lives!

For anyone interested in this topic, I would recommend this book because it contained a lot of information. However, as an entertaining or thought-provoking read, The Witches left much to be desired.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Boston Globe
The Guardian

The Managed Heart

The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild9780520239333

publication date: 1983
pages: 307 (including back matter)
ISBN: 0-520-04800-8

This book coined a term that recently came back into vogue: “emotional labor.” Emotional labor is the emotion work that most people do every day. It is schooling our face and body language to reflect only the emotion we want to reflect or, perhaps, even changing what we feel on the inside to better fit into or accept a situation. It is also the things we do to invoke or change emotions in others. The author, Arlie Hochschild, discussed emotional labor in broad terms, but the bulk of her discussion was focused on emotional labor as it is required or encouraged by our employers.

As Western society shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and now to a service-related economy, the amount of people who deal with other people at their job has increased. And anyone who deals with people at their job has probably been expected to perform emotional labor. To smile at customers and seem friendly and deferential. To inspire a sense of gratitude and understanding from a customer. These aren’t always things that we want to do for a customer and they are rarely discussed using precise terms like “emotional labor.” Instead, they are either not discussed at all or are couched in terms like “professionalism” and “customer service.” An example that Hochschild used often was the work of flight attendants.

This book had a lot of great points and made me rethink my concept of what an employee is obligated to do on the job. As Hochschild worded it:

Where the customer is king, unequal exchanges are normal, and from the beginning customer and client assume different rights to feeling and display. The ledger is supposedly evened by a wage.

She further stated:

When a flight attendant feels angry at a passenger . . . what does her anger signal? According to the teacher in [Delta Airline’s] Training, it indicates that she is mislocating herself in the world, that she is seeing the man who demands a smile in the wrong sort of way – that she is too oversensitive, too touchy. It does not signal a perception about how emotional display maintains unequal power between women and men, and between employees and employers. It indicates something wrong with the worker, not something wrong with the assumptions of the customer or the company. In this way the company’s purposes insinuate themselves into the way workers are asked to interpret their own feelings.

Do those things seem right? Why should I act and feel differently just because I’m getting paid? I enjoyed most of Hochschild’s discussions and conclusions.

However, her writing could be quite dense and confusing. She would throw out concepts that I hadn’t heard of and pile them on top of each other. A lot of discussions seemed irrelevant; or maybe I just didn’t understand them. Also, some of her endnotes were weird and completely off topic. Or sometimes her conclusions wouldn’t follow logically from her statements or data.

There were also some points she made that I just didn’t buy. For example:

The code of chivalry is said to require protection of the weaker by the stronger. Yet a boss may bring flowers to his secretary or open the door for her only to make up for the fact that he gets openly angry at her more often than he does at a male equal or superior; and more often that she does at him. The flowers symbolize redress, even as they obscure the basic maldistribution of respect and psychic cost.

You can’t just throw out a statement like that without any data, evidence, or explanation.

Overall, though, this book was very enlightening. I would recommend it to anyone who feels like they put on a face at work or anyone who manages those who put on a face at work.

4/6: worth reading

I couldn’t find any reviews for this book online, but here are its Amazon and Powell’s pages:

Amazon
Powell’s

The Two-Income Trap

The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Parents Are Going Broke by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi9780465090907

publication date: 2003
pages: 253 (including notes etc.)
ISBN: 10-0-465-09090-7

In The Two-Income Trap, written in 2003, Warren and Tyagi attempted to explain the financial problems facing the middle class. The main thrust of the book was that several factors came together to make middle-class families worse off financially than they were in previous generations.

In the first chapter, the authors demonstrated that families are currently worse off financially. At one point, they claimed that 13.5% of American families would declare bankruptcy between 2003 and 2010. This was also where they introduced their concept of the Two-Income Trap. The trap comes from the seeming security of a household that has two wage earners when, in actuality, a household with two wage earners is actually more financially vulnerable. Two-income families might have used both incomes to pay their fixed costs, so if a layoff or injury happened, then a two-income family would be less able to pay their bills. The two-income trap was further discussed in Chapter 3.

In the second chapter, the authors introduced the Over-Consumption Myth. According to Warren and Tyagi, middle-class financial problems are not caused by over-maxed credit cards, swiped for things like new TVs, vacation homes, and designer bags. Instead, the cost of housing, medical care, and childcare has increased exponentially, and it was those things that families accumulated debt for.

The authors introduced the Myth of the Immoral Debtor in Chapter 4, which stated that any idea we might have about a lack of honor or code among current American spenders and debtors is a misconception. Borrowers in 2003 were no less honorable than borrowers in the 50s, or the 30s, or the 1760s. This was probably the book’s most convincing chapter, with discussions on the lengths that banks, credit card companies, and other lenders will go to get people to borrow money. The authors continued this theme in Chapter 6, which contained their discussion of the de-regulation of the credit industry and the abuses that followed.

Chapter 5 discussed the problems facing the single-income family. The book concluded in Chapter 7 with the Financial Fire Drill, a set of questions and suggestions designed to protect a family from financial collapse. The Fire Drill didn’t contain anything revelatory: basically, try to decrease your expenses and investigate buying certain insurance policies.

The book was very prescient in some ways. It predicted the sub-prime mortgage collapse and the problems that would come from rampant lending. I am no expert on the American financial system, but there might be some things about the book that are no longer relevant, because the bankruptcy, banking, and credit industries look somewhat different now than they did in 2003.

There were some problems I had with the book. First of all, the authors never defined what made a family “middle class.” And why would I only care about this “middle class”? Why wouldn’t I be interested in the undue financial misfortunes of every type of family, especially the lower class? Using the undefined phrase “middle class” seemed to me like a move to endear themselves to people who think they are middle class – which is everyone!

Also, although the end notes were generally thorough and clear, sometimes the data did not support the authors’ conclusions or their numbers didn’t make any sense.

Overall, this was a better book than I was expecting, especially because one of the authors is in politics. Generally, political authors use more rants than facts. Although Warren and Tyagi peppered the book with hyperbolic language, they usually backed it up with data and some logic.

4/6: worth reading (I was close to giving this a 3/6, but it did contain some interesting points and facts)

other reviews:

The Finance Buff
Publishers Weekly
Mother Jones

Forest Dreams Forest Nightmares

Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox Of Old Growth In the Inland West by Nancy Langston

publication date: 1995
pages (including back matter) : 368
ISBN: 0-295-97456-7

For a book ostensibly about the decline in growth of Ponderosa pines in a small region of the Pacific Northwest, I found Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares to be surprisingly relatable.

In the book, Nancy Langston discussed the history of the Blue mountain range that spans the border between Oregon and Washington. At the time of her writing, the Blues had become a battleground between environmentalists, loggers, forest rangers, and bureaucratic government organizations. The history she gave of the Blues mainly encompassed the insertion of pioneers and ranchers in the 1880s up to the management by the Forest Service in the 1910s and the inadvertent destruction of the forest through the 1980s and 90s. Langston’s goal was to provide contemporary caretakers of the Blues with a way forward.

Being someone who is not overly interested in trees or plants or what Langston termed the “inland West,” I mainly picked up the book because I loved how melodramatic the title was. However, Langston wrote the book with such aplomb, I found myself constantly learning new and interesting things. Further, it is amazing how consistent human nature is, in its hubris and shortsightedness: from the Native Americans lighting fires in the forests decades before Americans arrived so they could ride their horses, to the loggers and ranchers in the 1920s who blamed the much milder sheepherders for any environmental damage done in the region because the sheepherders were often foreign, and to the overconfident Forest Service scientists in the 1940s who were so sure they knew what they were doing and instead brought in an era of unmanageable fires and insect invasions. Here is a long passage Langston shared about forest rangers attempting to reintroduce elk into the Blues after they had been hunted into extinction:

The history of elk reintroductions illustrates the ironic ways that attempts to save wild nature often led to the accelerated destruction of the wildness that people sought to preserve. . . . [In 1913], the [forest rangers] had to feed the [reintroduced] elk in stockyards for a month because of deep snow, and five more died and several calves were born prematurely and died. . . . The Association ran out of money to buy hay, and the elk were in danger of simply starving in the stockyards. . . . Finally one afternoon they drove them up to Benjamin Gulch on the edge of town. By morning all the elk had returned to the stockyards to be fed. Finally, in March, they drove the twenty-nine survivors to the Tumalum Creek at the north end of the Blues and released them in the forest, and this time they were too far to find their way back to the hay.

These are sad, confused stories of men who tried to manipulate wild things, which then refused to be wild, so people lost interest. . . . Reintroduction stories like the one recounted above are disturbing because people want wild nature to mean something.

The book’s explanations of its topic were interesting and sophisticated enough to keep me involved. However, Langston’s real masterstroke was that throughout all this, she told a story of American history and optimism. Of men (and a few women) who really thought they were doing right by god and country when they cut down old trees and grazed cattle until the land was barren and always moved ever West to find the next paradise. This is a book that is so much more than its compelling subject matter.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

University Of Washington Press
Book Addiction

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism by Daniel Harris 

publication date: 2000
pages: 265
ISBN: 0-465-02848-9

I present for you another bitter, overblown nonfiction book. How do I keep getting tricked into reading these? I guess that’s what happens when I judge a book by its cover (and title).

In Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, Harris attempted to enlighten us, dear readers, with all the aesthetics that marketers use to manipulate us into buying their stuff, from “cute” to “cleanness.” He was very very serious about his undertaking. Here’s a sample sentence that shows just how seriously, and non-sensically, he took it:

The stylistic distortions of the market-place often reflect tensions in our attitudes towards the things and people around us: towards our children, whose waywardness we seek to smother beneath the conventions of cuteness; towards parents, whose denial of adolescents’ sexuality and independence our offspring throw back in our faces by adopting the exaggerated mannerisms of coolness; and even towards computer software, whose gaudy aesthetic emerges from the anarchic aspirations of programmers who seek to hide from themselves the dull, bureaucratic realities of their lives.

That sentence got crazier and crazier until it was a great big WHAT?!?!

I don’t know why he took this topic so seriously and reacted to it so brutally. Sure, I’m not fan of manipulative marketing, but, as he admitted, he can’t see an alternative. Instead, in his infinite wisdom, he always felt:

[I]t is sufficient for me to destroy – to slash, to burn – and [I] have never felt any desire to formulate utopian solutions, not only because I wish to avoid blunting the full force of my skepticism and palliating my reader’s urgent need for happy endings, but because I frankly do not have any answers to offer, no five-year plan, no program for reform, no campaign for organizing the Great Leap Forward into paradise on Earth.

(If the above passages are not enough to convince you that the author is seemingly a pompous dick, maybe this will: in his acknowledgements he thanks his ex in a way that reminds everyone that they used to date and are now great friends, notwithstanding his ex’s new guy:

As always, I would like to thank my former lover Anthony Aziz and his current companion Sammy Cucher for their loyalty and friendship. Life wouldn’t be the same without these two tremendous friends.)

Maybe I could have found the book’s discussion of marketing and aesthetics interesting. Probably not. But it’s tough to tell because it was hard to look past the author’s excessive and silly analysis.

2/6: many problems

other reviews of the book:

Publishers Weekly
Salon
12 Frogs

In the Land of God and Man

In the Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture by Silvana Paternostro

publication date: 1998
pages: 326
ISBN: 0-525-94422-2

In In the Land of God and Man, Paternostro wove memoir and investigative journalism together as she discussed the perils of machismo in the Latin culture.

I loved the tone of this book and Paternostro’s voice. She was like a best friend telling me all these secrets, not because she wanted to but because she felt like they had to be told. Paternostro didn’t flinch from describing her own experiences and her own contributions to machismo culture.  She also didn’t hesitate to explore her moral quandaries concerning her subject matter and her investigative and interviewing techniques.  Here is a deliberation she had while interviewing a poor woman in a loveless, abusive marriage who seemed resigned to her fate and didn’t care about the feminist marches and meetings going on around her:

I knew that, no, Josefa had no idea what I was talking about, and that it was naive of me to try and engage her in a feminist dialogue. Shouldn’t I stop holding her responsible? She was too busy making ends meet, supporting her husband and taking care of her children. Civil liberties and political representation were not things she had time to be concerned with. Would I, if I had to worry about my husband keeping his job, coming home drunk or not at all, crawling into my bed after having paid for sex?

Paternostro’s questions about her own methods and motivations were refreshing. There were a few times, however, when her tone became presumptuous or hypocritical. For example, even though she paid lip service to the idea that transvestites were a maligned and underrepresented group in Latin America, she generalized about them and disdained their lifestyle:

Transvestites want to be as feminine as their [hair-styling] clients. They want to be beauty queens and señoras de sociedad. The hands plucking their clients’ eyebrows and dying their hair do it so well because the owners of those hands dream of having their clients’ lives.

Another issue with the book was its organization. Although most of the information Paternostro presented was interesting, it was disjointed. She would go from transvestites to street children to a housewife with AIDS, all in a couple pages. The book also was somewhat repetitive, although that is just something I’ve come to expect from nonfiction books.

Finally, the book, which was published in 1998, was sometimes outdated. Of course, Paternostro’s personal experiences and the interviews she presented could never be considered outdated because they are and always will be the facts of someone’s life. However, some of her data was no longer accurate, especially concerning Latin American laws that support a machismo culture.

If I reviewed this book when it first came out, I would give it a 5/6 because it was enlightening and stimulating; however, because parts of it are outdated, I’m giving it a:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Foreign Affairs
Publishers Weekly
L.A. Times

The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre by Hiller B. Zobel

publication date: 1970
pages (including back matter): 372
SBN: 393-05376-8

As we all learned in school, the subject of this book, the Boston Massacre, occurred when several British soldiers supposedly gunned down unsuspecting and unarmed citizens of Boston, adding another spark to the Revolutionary fire.

Zobel would disagree with that well-known, simplistic, and inaccurate telling. In The Boston Massacre, Zobel took an objective and research-based look at the years leading up to what we now call a “massacre,” the event itself, and the subsequent infamous trials against the British soldiers, who were defended by John Adams himself. Zobel’s motivation seemed to be simply illuminating the causes and effects of the Boston Massacre, both in America and abroad. Beyond that, any theme he attempted to convey revolved around the mythological significance the Boston Massacre has in our collective American history and, further, the dubiousness of that mythology considering the prolonged harassment of the British soldiers in the Colonies and the lack of solid facts surrounding what actually happened the night of the massacre. In Zobel’s own words:

[I]t seems fitting that an event so historically inevitable and yet so basically insignificant should have taken place on a moonlit night, before scores of people, without leaving any two witnesses able to give the same account of what happened.

Although I found the subject matter interesting and Zobel was clearly passionate about this aspect of American history, the book was dull. Especially tiresome was the first half, containing the years leading up to the Boston Massacre. Zobel included excessive detail, like this discussion of British troops first landing in Boston:

The sergeants, too, wore silver-laced hats and swords. Their sashes were crimson and buff or (for the Twenty-ninth) crimson and yellow; they carried long-shafted ornamental battle axes called halberds.

Do I really need all that information? Further confusing things, Zobel assumed knowledge about 1760s New England that I didn’t have. Nonetheless, I would much prefer Zobel’s zealous attention to fact and detail than read through a nonfiction book full of exaggerations, opinions, and invective. (Under the Banner of Heaven, as an example.)

This book was recommended to me as a particularly relevant historical account, considering all the gun violence on civilians recently in the news. As I was reading, I was struck by the slowness and hesitation people of that time seemed to have concerning discharging any gun, including the British soldiers who were taunted and harassed for months and then mobbed for hours the night of the massacre before firing a single shot. This is in contrast to media reports today, where George Zimmerman can legally fatally shoot a teenager without so much as a quarrel. However, was the past any different than today, considering the fact that the soldiers involved in the massacre, much like Zimmerman, were found not guilty of murder?

Whether The Boston Massacre has relevance to today, it is a useful historical account of a storied part of our history.

4/6: worth reading

I couldn’t find any lengthy reviews of this book online, but there are a few more summary reviews:

Amazon
goodreads