Review: Spinster

SpinsterKate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

In this book that’s part literary biography, part memoir, journalist Kate Bolick engages with the notion of “spinsterhood” and claims that, rather than being used pejoratively, it should be seen as a term of female autonomy and empowerment. She notes that contemporary society is full of single women (whether never-married, widowed, or divorced), but “spinsterhood” is still largely viewed as an aberration. In other words, as she states in the first sentence of Chapter 1, “Whom to marry, and when it will happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence…” Bolick talks about her own life as a 40-something, never-married woman and how she was inspired to find her own path by the lives of five literary women: Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton. She weaves the biographies of these women into her own autobiography as she explores what it means to be a spinster and concludes that it can actually be a good thing.

This book was an odd read for me; some parts of it were very interesting and thought-provoking, while others made me roll my eyes in annoyance. I think its main problem is that it’s trying to be too many different genres; I was hoping for more of a cultural study and often found Bolick’s personal reminiscences tiresome. I also struggled with her definition of spinsterhood. To me, a spinster would be a woman who remains unmarried and uncoupled throughout her life. But Bolick’s literary inspirations, all of whom she styles as “spinsters,” mostly did get married eventually. Some of the marriages were tempestuous, and some of them ended in divorce, but these women did not live their entire lives uncoupled. Bolick herself, though technically never married, talks at length about her previous and current relationships, and she has even cohabited with some of her romantic partners. So I feel like she’s not really writing from the perspective of a spinster, but rather as a woman who is in a long-term, committed relationship — married in all but name. That said, the little biographies of the five “spinsters” who inspired Bolick were interesting, and I’d like to learn more about these writers and/or read some of their works. But overall, this book disappointed me; it just wasn’t what I expected.

Review: Life of Johnson

Life of JohnsonJames Boswell, Life of Johnson

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were unlikely friends: Boswell was a young Scottish nobleman with a penchant for drinking and whoring, while Johnson was poorer, much more devout (in theory, at least), and a good 30 years older. Yet throughout the course of this monumental work, Boswell describes his reverence for Johnson’s intelligence, morality, and literary talents — a reverence so extreme that Boswell took notes on almost every conversation he ever had with the older man. As a result, this biography is stuffed full of Boswell’s personal anecdotes, letters both to and from Johnson, and first-person accounts of other contemporaries who knew him. Near the end of the book, Boswell states: “The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him.” And indeed, anyone who reads this book will come away with an extremely vivid picture of a remarkable man.

This book is so huge and deals with so many things that I don’t quite know what to say about it. At first I was very intimidated, both by its length and by Boswell’s flowery 18th-century prose. But even though it’s not a quick read, this book contains a wealth of fascinating details about Johnson and the age in which he lived. I was struck by how literary the 18th century was, in the sense that seemingly anyone with a claim to intelligence was churning out books and pamphlets. In that way, Johnson’s time is very similar to our own, where everybody can (and does) publish blogs, tweets, and other forms of instantaneous literature. I was also fascinated by Johnson’s unique character; though intelligent, he was often pompous, narrow-minded, and abrasive. I frequently found myself underlining various Johnsonian sayings that were wise, or funny, or both — but I would have hated to be forced to converse with him! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period or who enjoys very thorough biographies!

Review: Luckiest Man

Luckiest ManJonathan Eig, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

This well-researched biography of Lou Gehrig follows his life and baseball career in vivid detail, from his humble beginnings playing high school ball to his stellar performance as first baseman and power hitter for the New York Yankees. Along the way, Eig discusses some of the broader social developments in America in the 1920s and ’30s, but the focus remains on baseball and how it evolved throughout the early 20th century. The book uses a wealth of primary sources, particularly the many newspaper stories that covered Gehrig’s remarkable career. Most importantly, though, this biography illuminates Gehrig’s personality — humble, modest, conscientious, hardworking, and determined to do his best in life both on and off the field.

I don’t particularly follow baseball (or any other sport, frankly), but for some reason I’ve always been interested in Lou Gehrig — probably because he was left-handed, like me, and because he died tragically young. So I decided to check out this biography, and I’m glad I did because it is fantastic. I felt like I really got a sense of Lou Gehrig as a person, and it was a pleasure to read about someone so admirable. I also loved learning more about the other legendary players of that era: Babe Ruth figures prominently in the book, and there are plentiful references to other greats like Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio. Eig discusses Gehrig’s baseball career in great detail, sometimes describing almost every play of a game. I suppose this might be boring for some, but I really appreciated all the information since I knew basically nothing coming in. Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone, although it will probably be most appealing to baseball fans.