Thursday, January 7, 2010

Books of the Aughts: Bottom 5 Non-Fiction Books I've Read this Decade

OK, this was easy. The list was short, and the stinkers were obvious. It pains me as a feminist to pan two books that really come from a feminist point of view. If you read these two, however, you'll probably agree that, um, they deserve it.

Our Own Devices; the Past and Future of Body Technology, Tenner, Edward, 2003
The review of this book in the NY Times caught my eye, but I couldn't get it at my l
ibrary at the time, so I read Why Things Bite Back first. This book, like that one, would make a fascinating feature-length magazine article. As a book, it bogs down in Tenner's exhaustive research that benefits from no cogent argument. The reader is too exposed to all of the marvelous things Tenner learned and not given enough of a structure to figure out why he/she should care. This book would benefit extraordinarily from more photographs of the technologies he describes - sandals, office chairs, recliners, helmets, etc. Although there are a handful of image plates sprinkled throughout the book, I found narrative descriptions of the shapes and designs of helmets and other objects utterly lacking without visual accompaniment. Perhaps even better and easier to achieve than photo documentation would be simple pen and ink drawings. But no. Reading this book provides a few interesting dinner party facts but not much more. Paige read the last 18 pages aloud to me in the car on the way back from a Christmas trip to Cincinnati because she was so sick of seeing it on my nightstand.

Horatio's Drive, Duncan, Dayton, 2003
I listened to this with Paige (on cassettes! ha!) on the way to the beach for vacation. Duncan is a collaborator with Ken Burns, and this was the audiobook output some sort of joint project that was also a documentary film. Even in a "book", this collection from primary sources was in the Burns style. It just wasn't very good. The story of the first person to drive across the country, this tale is of deep interest to the author, but it was not conveyed in a way that would make the reader interested. Horatio what's his name had tons of problems getting across the country in the barely-perfected technology. There was a lot of finding blacksmiths to make replacement parts and waiting for stuff to come by train. Yawn.

A Place on the Team; the Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX, Suggs, Welch, 2005

Like Title IX, a bad law with good intentions, this is a bad book about an important topic. The best conclusion I can draw from it is that Title IX was either too vague when written or has take off in ways that were never envisioned. The Office of Civil Rights's attempts to clarify the law have required much effort and helped little. Thirty-three years after passage, it is still quite difficult to say whether a university is in compliance with Title IX for athletics (nevermind all of the other areas of equality for women that the law addresses). This was the most poorly copy-edited book I've read since a history of the Harlem Boys Choir in the late 90s. The mistakes were distracting and annoying (bad copy-editing is an entire other blog post in the making). The core problem of the book, I think, is that it's a legal history. Legal history is boring. Suggs decides to add little humanity, quoting the head of the Women & Girls Foundation instead of, say, telling the story of a volleyball player at Vanderbilt. Girls and women having more opportunities in sports is good. This book is not.

Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, Dowd, Maureen, 2005
So I got interested in this book a little bit and then my friend Joanne called me to discuss a question about relations between the genders. Then I wanted to get past the title and find out what Maureen Dowd concludes in answer to her provocative question. Unfortunately, reading the book did not get me to anything like a conclusion - from Dowd or for myself. There's a lot of good wtiting here, but it doesn't add up to a book. Dowd is a newspaper columnist and writes like it. Except this is not Dave Barry repackaging previously published columns in a collection. There are ony 9 huge chapters in this 340-page book, the first of which is 62 pages long. Reading writing that's paced for a column but strung into a chapter and book this long is kind of exhausting. Add to that that Dowd writes on two levels - her attempt at the personal and colloquial and her typical broad, current affairs style for the paper. The former is marked by a funny quirk: every person about whom Dowd writes from personal and friends' experience is a journalist. When she needs the ideas of the young person, it's a rising reporter at the Washington Post. If she wants to find an older voice, it's Helen Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan fame. The latter is marked by a real shrillness about the Bush administration and an astoundingly cultivated knowledge and analysis of the Clinton administration. The book is a giant mashup. Some of the best stuff is about men flirting with/hitting on Dowd in a job setting and the long coverage of HG Brown. I was entertained while I read the book but don't feel like I gained much insight from it.

Jim Thompson, the Unsolved Mystery, Warren, William, 1998

We acquired this book sometime after our trip to Thailand in 2000. We visited Jim Thompson's famous house and brought back some small silk items. Thompson vanished in 1967. No one knows why. That's what this book could be stripped down to. Those are the facts as I've known them. Here, William Warren catalogs every theory and rumor surrounding Thompson's disappearance, including links to his CIA past and Cold War era communist consipiracy theories. In the end, no one knows what happened to Thompson, and the book is just a looping, maddening examination of the dead ends in all of the theories. Finished the book out of my dogged commitment to finishing books.

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