Review: Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change

Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change
Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change by Barbara Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember Shirley Chisholm running for president when I was in kindergarten. I was so impressed and was sure things would be so different by the time I was a woman. I’m eager to read her story and learn more about her ideas beyond my 5 year old comprehension level.

So, it’s a mixed bag: I am definitely enjoying the history, both national and New York, and the stories of Chisolm’s personal growth. I am jarred every few pages by things that were missed by the editor: errors in chronology; important players introduced by last name only as if they’ve appeared previously in the text, but they haven’t; and at least one political contest reported with an incorrect victor. There are also places in which, every time a person is mentioned, his name is spelled a new way. Because I know little about Chisolm herself, I can’t avoid wondering what else is wrong that I am not noticing. This is a big bummer because the book is part of a series (Lives of American Women) and is edited by an important women’s history scholar.

The persnikety editing bits aside, this is a book worth reading and Chisolm was a truly remarkable person. She appears to have been exceedingly brave and sure of her core inside herself. She kept her focus on advancing critical improvements for her constituents even in the face of constant derision by the old guard. It’s important to remember just how unusual it was for a woman to claim her power and authority in American politics in the 1960s and 70s. Even in grassroots organizations, women were expected to do the envelope stuffing, make coffee, and be girlfriends. Chisolm set the agenda. She’s just as cool as my kindergarten self thought she was. I wish I had known that she was teaching at Mt. Holyoke in the late 80s. I was nearby and would have definitely tried to sit in on one of her classes.

I would give this 4 stars, not because it’s a scintillating read, but because it is an extremely worthwhile one.

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Review: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So, I was looking forward to reading this, as I live in an area with very few Jews and, for reasons I won’t get into, we haven’t been making the trip to our synagogue lately. A Jewish-themed contemporary near-winner of a prestigious literary prize: I want to read it!

I am sorry to report that, 4 chapters in, this is a pretty cliche-ridden story. I can’t write anything better than the many other reviewers on goodreads who have expressed disappointment in this one. I had hoped for a smart, feeling, story with true-to-life (or, at least, believable) characters. These characters hate themselves and the narrator hates them, too. So far, everyone is fat, disheveled, distracted during prayer, and unhappy with their lives. Orthodoxy is not for me, but there are many who live within it fully and happily. Chani’s community must have people glad to dwell within it, or it would implode.

I’ll read a few more chapters, but so far it is leaving me feeling very icky.

So, I finished it. And fairly quickly, too. So it’s not unreadable.
How can it be that all the food is bland and tasteless, everyone’s hair is greasy, everything smells of stale sweat? Even the goyish motel room in this book is filthy. The people are willfully ignorant and self-hating. On top of all that, the editing is terrible. Repetitious phrases, spelling errors, names spelled different ways each time the same character appears — the best part of this book is the Yiddish glossary in the back.

I just don’t know what to say. There are so many stereotypes in here. Harris may not have intended it, but she’s written a tangibly negative book.

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Review: A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade
A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, seventh grade was definitely not my favorite year. (Is it anyone’s?) And, I should know better than to judge a book by its cover. But the title of this one, combined with the spot-on 1970s sociology textbook-looking cover design by Paul Sahre (and a library binding!) make this a must-read.

Brockmeier makes the choice to write his memoir as a novel, never referring to himself as “I.” This made it read more like a story and less like memory, but it also muted the pain and disappointments your Kevin experienced. I felt it distanced me from feeling for him.

It’s been a while since I finished this one — What stands out in my mind is that this is the kind of story you wish you could give your young teen now: a message from the future. Yeah, your friendships are mysteriously falling apart, you just can’t tell anymore what’s cool and what’s dorky, but eventually you do figure it out and you will have a decent life if you can just find the will to muddle through for a bit longer. It won’t be all high scores and endless pizza, but it’ll be worth living for.

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Review: Noggin

Noggin by John Corey Whaley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Love the idea of this: a terminally ill teenager has his head cryogenically frozen so that it can be attached to a healthy body once the science has been perfected. Turns out, rather than being re-animated in a remote future, it’s just five years up the road. All his loved ones are still alive; the world looks mostly the same. It’s just that boys’ pants are tighter and the video games he loves are no longer cool and -oh yeah – all his friends kept growing up and are in college while he has to actually repeat a grade because he missed so much school being terminally ill. Bummer, dude.

So, if you were hoping for groovy science fiction (as I always am), this is not it. But, if you’re in the mood for a reasonably interesting kid trying to find his way back into a life with meaning, and some deep-ish thoughts about the many kinds of love, this one’s good.

This book has necessitated the creation of a “back-from-the-dead” shelf, as so many of the titles I’ve picked up in the last year or so deal with that topic. Hmmm.

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Review: The Good Luck of Right Now

The Good Luck of Right Now
The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 4th book in a row featuring a spiritually/existentially lost boy (man-child). What can it mean?

In this one, Bartholomew’s mother has just died, leaving him all alone and without the skills to make his way through life. Despite his age (he’s 39), she has been his only friend and being her caretaker has been his only job. He is close to one other person, a manic-depressive alcoholic priest.

The Good Luck of Right Now is surprisingly sweet and life-affirming. Though Quick never makes it clear why Barthlomew has lived such a stunted life (his mother is portrayed as an upbeat and kind person, if a bit kooky, and Bartholomew himself comes off as reasonably smart), and the 2 big reveals can be seen from a long way off, he does do a great job of getting the reader to care about the characters and want to go with them on their journey. The clever use of written letters to a celebrity works, as does the weaving in of the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

Very pleasantly not what I expected. I’ll have to go back and read Silver Linings Playbook. It’s probably as good as its hype!

P.S. Cat Parliament is real. But it is closing.

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