Review of Behold America

Behold America by Sarah Churchwell, Published by Perseus Books on 9 October 2018

I received a free egalley of this title for review via NetGalley.

This book is so my jam. I have a Master’s in History. At my first committee meeting, one of the members asked for a list of every history class I had taken. Upon furnishing the list, he told me I needed to venture out of the 20th century. I sadly did so in my remaining semesters. BUT I love 20th century American history. I keep returning to it. I think the century is rich in topics to study. I think that this is a great topic because of how timely it is.

The subtitle of this book is “The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘The American Dream.'” Two phrases that are thrown around like beads at Mardi Gras nowadays. Churchwell examines the origins of these phrases and how they have changed meaning over time as different groups have adopted them and used them. Spoiler–today their usage bears little resemblance to their initial meaning. The concept of “America first” has historically been tied to white nationalist groups. The “American dream” initially had little to do with personal, individual prosperity, but focused on the ability to live a more generous life. Churchwell traces these changes in meaning from their earliest usages in the Gilded Age up through today.

Churchwell takes the perfect approach in her study. She uses the words of ordinary people as opposed to the words of politicians or writers, which better highlights the widespread understanding and meaning of these phrases over time. Their meaning for ordinary people shows why they are used by politicians. Politicians use phrases that either prey on the fears of their followers or inspire them to action. For me, this approach helps make the connection of why politicians keep turning to these phrases. This use of primary source material creates a much stronger basis for her arguments.

Her writing is extremely accessible. I hate wading through incredibly dense histories. Fortunately, though a heavy topic, Churchwell wrote about it in an engaging way. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes history or likes reading about current events. I appreciate how she kept tying together the parallels between the past and current events. In order to create a better future for the country, we have to know where we came from.

Bottom line–I really enjoyed this book. It’s the kind of history book I enjoy reading. It’s the kind of history book I went to grad school to write. It’s very informative and it’s very timely. Read it.

Book Stacks

One of my favorite things to do is pull out a stack of books I’d like to read in an upcoming month. There is so much intention, so many possibilities. However, because once I am locked into reading a particular book, it’s the last book I want to read, these stacks are more symbolic than anything. Indicative of a particular mood. Yet another good intention on the road to hell.

Here is my October stack:

October Book Stack

I began this stack yesterday. I initially included The Master and Margarita and A Tale of Two Cities. I made the decision to put them back. This morning I completed the stack with a couple of other additions.

During my daily writing yesterday, I engaged in the exercise of analyzing my choices. Was there a common theme? I think there were a few themes.

The Air You Breathe (Peebles) deals with an intense female friendship. Secrets of the Flesh (Thurman) is a biography of Colette. The Complete Claudine (Colette) details the growing up of a French girl. My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Moshfegh) is about a woman literally escaping from her life. You Think It, I’ll Say It (Sittenfeld) is a collection of stories about characters in awkward situations. Changing My Mind (Smith) is a collection of essays that detail the evolution of Zadie Smith. Ann Beattie’s New Yorker Stories (Beattie) are mostly about the Baby Boomers and how they are a generation at war with itself. Not pictured is The Age of Innocence (Wharton), which I have already read, but am going to re-read, and I think highlights the different rules for men and women in society.

As I look through these very brief, very basic synopses, I feel like there are a couple of books that–to me–respond to the current news cycle. The news right now is saturated with examples of different rules for men and women and generational politics. I think that’s why I selected Wharton and Beattie. Also, the Peebles would fall under this because female relationships are so important right now. The remaining books dovetail with my inner workings. I feel like I am in a period of change and growth right now, so reading about development through a biography, novellas, and essays is why the Thurman, Colette, and Smith books would be appealing. (I bought the Thurman and Colette books 10 years ago either just before or just after my 21st birthday. As I turn 31 in November, it seemed like a good time to finally finish them) Another part of growth is the awkwardness, hence the Sittenfeld. Lastly, my current impulse is to avoid all social situations as much as possible. I just want to hibernate. I want to be alone with my lover, my books, and my writing as much as possible, so I want to read about how Moshfegh’s character avoids the real world for a year. I’m not going to do it through medications, but I can certainly understand the desire to shut out the outside world.

Another throwback to 10 years ago . . . around this time, I bought The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, WHICH I NEVER FINISHED. I feel as though I can trace thousands of collars in book purchases languishing on my shelves (or being already donated without ever being opened) to this one book. I want to read it this month and exorcize my demons. It is the only male author on my list (and is not included in the picture). I want to read it solely because I feel like it will end something that needs to be ended. Weird, I know.

Top Ten Tuesday–Summer TBR

I contributed to Broke and Bookish when it was around. I am so thankful that Jana is carrying on the weekly Top Ten Tuesday meme. I know it’s a lot of work on her part to come up with topics and come up with her own list and post the thing on time. I love participating in TTT because it’s a great way of linking people together, but I don’t read series or YA or sci-fi, so sometimes the topics can be difficult to impossible for me to make a list for. That said, I’ll participate when I can, when I think about it, because it’s nice to have a focus for a post.

This week’s topic is Books to Read by the Pool or at the Beach (or otherwise your Summer TBR).

I’m really bad about coming up with a reading list and actually sticking to it because then it feels like required reading, which I hate doing. However, I’ve been thinking about how I should come up with a summer reading list for fun, so this topic was perfect for today!

  1. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy–I’ve already started this one. It’s kind of a light breezy read about a gal coming into her own while living in Paris. So far it feels like what the inside of Holly Golightly’s head must be like, which I love!
  2. In a Lonely Place by Megan Abbott–The back cover hails this as “a classic of golden age noir.” The back cover also says it has a feminist kick and is an indictment of toxic masculinity AND has a great story. I read a few noir books for a college class, and really enjoyed them, so I’m excited to read this.
  3. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan–I’ve seen this one floating around my radar for years. I finally bought a copy. It’s about a 17 year old in Paris with her father and his mistress. She tries to make sense of the world around her as she’s being exposed to adult bullshit at a tender age. Seems ripe for drama, bad decisions, and growth. These are a few of my favorite things.
  4. Who Is Vera Kelly by Rosalie Knecht–A spy novel about a young female who is recruited by the CIA and sent to Argentina. This is a new release and I’ve seen a lot of people talking about it, so I had to jump in.
  5. 1984 by George Orwell–Ever since November 2016 I’ve been thinking I need to read this one because that’s where we were headed, and unfortunately I’ve been right about that.
  6. Grace Paley’s Short Stories–I’m wanting to do more creative writing, yet I’ve never really been into short stories. I feel like I need to read some by a master in order to help shape my craft. Probably also throw in here short stories by Capote, Mary Miller, maybe Hemingway, and some of Josef Conrad’s shorter works.
  7. The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion–I saw that they’re making this into a Netflix movie starring Anne Hathaway. I need to read this before it comes out. Also JOAN! How could I not?
  8. Sex and the City and Us by Jennifer Keishan Armstrong–I cannot believe that it’s been 20 years since SATC premiered. We didn’t have HBO and I was 10 when it first came out, but as soon as reruns started airing on TBS and E! when I was in high school, I was hooked! So often I wind up quoting the show without realizing it. I know some of the lines in the show are a bit dated and ill-informed, but I think the show has aged well.
  9. Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn–Summer seems like a great time to read someone else’s travelogue. I love Gellhorn. She led such an adventurous life and refused to accept the identity of Hemingway’s third wife. She was so much more.
  10. Everything I Know about Love by Dolly Alderton–I love the personal essay. From the description, I think we’re about the same age, so I think this collection will be spot on for me. I’m impatiently awaiting my copy to arrive.

BONUS PICK–My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh–I came across a review of this in Vanity Fair and it sounds amazing. She graduates college and has all of these advantages, but decides to avoid the world for a year. I can relate because that’s basically what I’ve done the past couple of months. It doesn’t come out until July 10, so I have a bit of a wait, but I can read some of my other picks before then.

Those are my current summer reading plans. We’ll see how many of them I actually get to.

Books I’ve Read Since the Bar

Reading has been my source of relaxation ever since I learned how to read. Of course, as a child, I didn’t realize that reading before bedtime was relaxing; it was just what I did. I made it a point to read for pleasure throughout college and grad school. I started 10 times more books than I ever finished during college and grad school. I just didn’t always or usually have the time to get lost in a book enough for it to grab me and not let me go. I still finished books, but not that many. It was pretty depressing and frustrating, to be honest.

I even read for pleasure throughout law school. I just needed something to take my mind off of all of the cases and crap that I just didn’t care about. One of my professors overheard me talking to a friend (also a reader) about reading such and such book. He said, “Wow! You guys are actually able to read outside of class reading?” Rather than saying, “Shit, I read instead of doing class reading!” I said that I had to read otherwise I’d kill people. That interaction stuck with me–just how rare it is for adults, even highly educated adults, to read for pleasure.

After law school was the bar exam. This entailed 8 to 10 to 12 hours of hell per day, six days a week (because I just wouldn’t do seven). But I still read some. There was actually an afternoon and a half where I said “Screw it; I need to read” and I read 3/4 of a John Grisham book, figuring that if I read about lawyers that might count a little bit.

Then came that wonderful day–March 1, 2018–the day after I had taken the bar exam. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t want to look for a job. I could have applied for an intermediate license to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney during the waiting period, but I didn’t. I just wanted to read and day drink until bar results came out, then determine my fate. This was the most glorious time of my life. I didn’t even give a shit whether I passed. Occasionally, I’d think about what I’d do if I didn’t pass (which was not take the bar exam again and disappoint my family). But mostly I just read. And day drank.

I should have kept a better record of the books I read between March 1 and the day I got sworn-in (I did a book purge and got rid of some I knew I wouldn’t read again without writing down the ones I’ve finished). But I have a casual record of what I read during my 5 weeks of perfect freedom (which actually is kind of still on-going because I still don’t have a job…) . . .

August: Osage County

The Immortalists

The Virgin Suicides

The Idiot

How to Get Your Shit Together


The Flamethrowers

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit


A Book of Common Prayer


Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Sex and Rage

Just Kids


The Rules Do Not Apply

How Did You Get This Number

I Was Told There’d Be Cake


Play It as It Lays

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Tiny Beautiful Things

Little Fires Everywhere

The Adults

The Wife Between Us


The 25 books that I can remember. I am quite confident that a few were donated and I just forgot about them. But I’m pretty happy with that number in 3 and a half months. Some of those had been plaguing me for ages! But I also donated without reading several that had plagued me for ages.

I also kind of have gone through a spell of reading about a third of a book and then setting it aside. I’ll tabulate that list another day. I think that a third is still a substantial amount of a book. And I’m not definitely never going to finish those books; I’m just not finishing them right now.