Top Ten Tuesday: Nonfiction That Taught Me Something New

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

August 28: Back to School/Learning Freebie (in honor of school starting back up soon, come up with your own topic that fits the theme of school or learning! Books that take place at school/boarding school/during study abroad, books you read in school, textbooks you liked/didn’t like, non-fiction books you loved or want to read, etc.)

Since I did a list of favorite novels with a school setting last year, I thought I’d do something different this year, so I decided to go with nonfiction that I enjoyed and learned from. In some cases they made me reconsider what I already knew and in others they showed me something new and different:

1.419t0xt8ill-_ac_us218_ Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly– I definitely don’t agree with all of Kelly’s analyses. I think that she sometimes falls victim to confirmation bias. But I do think that her assertion that Austen’s many contemporary fans don’t appreciate the context of her work has some merit. Obviously that’s a very general statement that doesn’t apply to everyone. But Austen did use a lot of references and allusions with which her contemporary audience would have been familiar, and that twenty first century audiences are not.  In some cases this lack of familiarity with things a reader in the early nineteenth century would know, contributes to Austen’s work being misunderstood.

2.51bven7uisl-_ac_us218_ The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shalin- In this book Leonard Shalin looks at the connection between words/images and the masculine/feminine sides of the human brain. The left brain is aligned with thought that is traditionally thought of as “masculine” (analysis, logic), whereas the right brain is aligned with thought that is traditionally ascribed to the “feminine” (intuition, expression). For roughly the past two thousand years we’ve placed greater value on the masculine, left brained thought.  This is the thought used to acquire language and use text based forms of communication. These last two millennia have also seen worldwide violence and patriarchy. Prior to that, there were more matriarchal, image based cultures that had a more peaceful, holistic lifestyle. Does correlation equal causation? I don’t know. The book certainly lays out some compelling connections for the reader to consider.

3. 51-m4zoalgl-_ac_us218_Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang- Author Jung Chang explores twentieth century China through the lens of three generations of women in her family. Her grandmother was a warlord’s concubine. Her mother was once an idealistic young Communist who, along with her husband rose to a prominent position within the party before being denounced by the Cultural Revolution.  Chang herself worked as a “barefoot doctor,” as well as a steel worker and an electrician before leaving China and becoming Director of Chinese Studies at London University. From the perspective of these three very different women we see Chinese history unfold over the course of a century from the end of the warlord’s regime, to the Japanese occupation, to the struggles between the Kuomintang and the Communists, and ultimately the making of modern China.

51bnothhkhl-_ac_us218_4. The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller– This is not a good book to read if you want a biography of the Brontes. However, if you’re interested in the ways that they’ve been presented to world and how that’s affected the reading of their work, this is an interesting book. Miller points out that different generations of readers and different audiences (Victorian, Freudian, feminist,) have ascribed different characteristics to them and their work. The bulk of the analysis focuses on Charlotte which makes sense because she was not only the most prolific of the sisters, she also lived the longest (she died at the ripe, old age of thirty eight) and was the most public. But her presentation of herself and her sisters had its own motivations. I would have liked a bit more about her siblings, even though there is far less information to draw from. Still this is an interesting read for any Bronte fan and gives a lot to look for to anyone planning a reread.

51qwilbijl-_ac_us218_5. Geisha: A Life by Mineko Iwasaki- I enjoyed Memoirs of A Geisha when I first read it, but in retrospect I’m glad that I read it at a point in my life when I was less critical and that I read it before reading this. Mineko Iwasaki, one of Japan’s most celebrated and successful geisha, gives her actual memoirs in the book.  She lays out her painstaking training (try wearing a 44 lb kimono on top of six inch wooden sandals!)  learning to sing, dance, and speak an elevated form of the Japanese language.  She also explains her decision to retire at the age of twenty nine, marry, and her surprise at the way that westerners perceive what she did as a geisha. It’s a refreshingly real glimpse into a rare world and a fading art.

51xeychg8vl-_ac_us218_6. The Inner Voice: The Making of A Singer by Renee Fleming– Soprano Renee Fleming has performed roles in six language and originated roles in contemporary operas, and sang some of the greatest female roles in the operatic repertoire. She presents this books as “an autobiography of [her] voice.” She takes us through her education and career, explains how she goes through a score before a performance, and how she prepares to play a role dramatically. We see her suffer from terrible performance anxiety at the peak of her career, and deal with the knowledge that that if something happens to her voice, her entire career goes tumbling down. Reading this book won’t necessarily make you an opera lover. But it’s very hard not to appreciate and respect it after reading about the work and artistic endeavors that go into its creation.

515ow4wtfol-_ac_us218_7. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelly by Charlotte Gordon– This is a fairly new discovery for me, I’m currently about halfway through but it reads like a novel and I recommend it highly. Mary Shelly and Mary Wollstonecraft are frequently footnotes in one another’s biographies. While they were mother and daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft passed away when her daughter was only ten days old. However this book argues that her mother’s influence (via her writings) was hugely instrumental in making Mary Shelly the woman she became and in shaping her masterpiece Frankenstein.  It also looks at just how ahead of their times both women were and how they impacted the work of the men in their lives (while most biographies look at how the men in their lives impacted their work).

51vrv0hceml-_ac_us218_8. Reading Lolita in Tehran- Azar Nafasi- As an American growing up in the late twentieth and twenty first centuries, I’ve been sort of spoiled by the notion that I can read whatever I want, wherever I want. Yes I always knew this was a privilege that not everyone had but I never considered some of the practicalities involved in reading material that had been legally censored, nor why it has so much impact when people in oppressive regimes do this. Reading about the discussions that this Iranian book club had, and their responses to what they read made me realize on a conscious level that one of the most important things that literature (and art more generally) does is to show us that we’re not alone. That other people have emotional reactions to things, just like we do. Art can be a bridge between people of very different backgrounds and viewpoints. These connections can threaten the very foundations of a society. In that way, reading a novel, and sharing it with others, can be one of the most subversive things a person can do.

41hms7wl8ql-_ac_us218_9. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman– This book is about a real life medical case in which the infant daughter of Hmong refugees from Laos suffered a seizure disorder. Because of cultural and linguistic differences between the family and the US medical establishment, miscommunications led to tragedy. What stuck me when I read this book, was that both “sides” tried their best. Both the family and the doctors had the child’s best interest at heart.  Their differences interfered with communication at a point when timing was crucial and the girl in question needed immediate action and attention. There’s no easy fix in a situation like this, simply because no one was greedy or incompetent or intolerant.  It would be easier to lay the blame at one person’s feet and say that “if this hadn’t happened, things would have been different.” But when there’s no obvious scapegoat it takes close analysis of each step of the response to ensure change. But really that’s the only way that systemic change can happen. Assigning blame to a single party is appealing because it’s easy, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.

51shzhsgmdl-_ac_us218_10. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen– This book addresses the way that American History is taught in American schools. It was written in 1995 originally, but the new edition has a preface in which the author asserts that these problem ultimately led to a Trump presidency. According to Loewen, American history is presented in a Eurocentric way that not only bores students, but also fails to address the complexities inherent in history, such as differing viewpoints. It gives the impression that history is a collection of facts rather than an ongoing process of understanding context. I remember that as a kid I was often presented with “good/bad” models of historical figures. If a historical figure accomplished something good, s/he was presented in the “good” category. Any mistakes s/he made were overlooked. This leads to a very simplistic, and often just incorrect, understanding of events and people. “Good” people often make mistakes. Sometimes “bad” people may accomplish something that has positive outcomes. Sometimes people do the wrong things for the right reasons, and vice versa. We’re shortchanging students by not allow them to see that.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best of 2017

For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 12: Top Ten Favorite Books of 2017

I’m doing the best I’ve read in 2017 rather than the best that were published this year. I had no intention of just doing books by female writers but that’s how it worked out this year!

517p1odjdbl-_ac_us218_1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery– It took me a while to start loving this book. The main characters initially aren’t all that likable. Renee is a concierge at a wealthy apartment building in Paris. She’s a fifty four year old widow with no formal education but a lifetime of reading under her belt. She conceals her intelligence from the tenants in her building to avoid curiosity. Paloma is a twelve year old girl who lives in the building. She’s highly intelligent but she considers her parents snobs and is convinced that life is meaningless. She plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday unless she can find a good reason not to. In each other, it seems that Renee and Paloma have found an unlikely kindred spirit.  As I said it was slow moving, but I came to care about these characters and invest in their future. I looked forward to the random, quirky events in which they both found a strange beauty.

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”

51u68hsyiml-_ac_us218_2. Play it As It Lays by Joan Didion I “discovered” Joan Didion last year, but this was the first time I’ve read her fiction. This narrative switches back and forth between the main character’s first person narration and a strangely detached third person narration. Set in Hollywood in the 1970’s, Maria Wyeth is a minor screen actress. Through her eyes, we see a culture of exploitation, built on open secrets. Just as the narration goes back and forth between Maria’s first person narration and that of others around her, the story itself is alternately shaped by Maria’s choices and the choices of others.  The word that comes to mind when describing this book is “lonely”. It’s a lonely book but there’s beauty in that loneliness.

“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.”

51dqnh9enml-_ac_us218_3. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye– My expectations of this book weren’t high (I’ve read some pretty disappointing Jane Eyre fan fiction!) so maybe it was the fact that it was a pleasant surprise that makes this book stand out. Maybe I just loved the gleeful, dark, slightly messed up humor of a homicidal Jane Eyre figure. In most gothic romance (Jane Eyre included) we see what is essentially a Bluebeard narrative. A young girl goes to live with/work for a wealthy man, who may or may now be a murderer. She usually falls in love with him regardless.  Rebecca, Dragonwyck, and Mistress of Mellyn, are other notable examples. Here Lyndsay Faye turns that narrative on it’s head. Yes, our hero, Mr. Thornfield, has secrets, but in this novel, Jane’s past is just as colorful.

“Reader, I murdered him…”

51vp6vchi4l-_ac_us218_4. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara– I always feel the need to put a warning before recommending this book, because I feel like it’s such a hard read. It’s long (about 700 pages) and emotionally draining. When we learn about the main character’s background, the abuse and trauma that he endures may be triggering for some readers. Even though I wasn’t triggered,  I found it almost too horrible to be believed. I certainly didn’t want to believe that such abuse could be real. But I can’t deny that it most likely isn’t as fictional as I’d like to believe.  I could see the wrong person, picking up this book at the wrong point in their life might see it as an author saying that there are things too horrible to ever truly recover from. Maybe that is partially what she’s saying, but I feel like she’s doing something more. She’s depicting love in all its forms. She shows how people who love someone don’t give up on them just because it seems hopeless. She shows the beauty that’s a part of the struggle through life.  And ultimately the lesson that she leaves us with is one of compassion.

“But then again, he would think, what about his life- and about Jude’s life, too- wasn’t it a miracle? He should have stayed in Wyoming, he should have been a ranch hand himself. Jude should have wound up – where? In prison, or in a hospital, or dead, or worse. But they hadn’t. Wasn’t it a miracle that someone who was basically unexceptional could life a life in which he made millions pretending to be other people, that in that life that person would fly from city to city, would spend his days having his every need fulfilled, working in which he was treated like the potentate of a small, corrupt country? Wasn’t it a miracle to be adopted at thirty, to find people who loved you so much that they wanted to call you their own? Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable?Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn’t this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle?”

 

41wjujfmkyl-_ac_us218_5. Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader by Anne Fadiman- Anne Fadiman is a creature that most bibliophiles will recognize. She’s the woman who will relish a really long word (or Sesquipedalian, which, as I’ve recently learned, means really long word)  rolling it over her tongue and savoring the taste. She’ll look forward to the opportunity to read aloud. She’ll challenge you to see who can find the most typos on the restaurant menu. These essays describe her lifelong love affair with language and books, from her childhood, building with books rather than blocks, or “marrying libraries” with her husband of five years. She takes us inside her “odd shelf” (“small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection reveals a good deal about its owner”) which is sort of a metaphor for her brain, I suppose.

“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.”

61kl8q74sml-_ac_us218_6. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff– This was actually the second Lauren Groff book I read this year (the first was Arcadia) but it stands out as a departure from her usual style. While Fates and Furies and Arcadia feature beautiful, poetic prose; this is more plot-based than either of those. It’s part contemporary novel, part ghost story, part historical fiction, and part magical realism. These different elements come together in ways that are occasionally messy, but that’s part of their charm. It’s somewhat less polished than Groff’s other work, and I love it for that reason too.

“Then, when we had done so, we put our hands upon the freezing cold monster, our monster. And this is what we felt: vertigo, an icicle through our strong hearts, our long-lost childhoods. Sunshine in a field and crickets and the sweet tealeaf stink of a new ball mitt and a rock glinting with mica and a chaw of bubblegum wrapping in sweet sweet tendrils down our throats and the warm breeze up our shorts and the low vibrato of lake loons and the sun and the sun and the warm sun and this is what we felt; the sun.”

41z63vm8bwl-_ac_us218_7. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing And Life by Anne Lamott–  This memoir/writing advice guide has been recommended to me over and over again over the past several years, but something irrational in me was turned off by something about it. I finally pushed past whatever it was, and I’m really glad that it did. Lamott shows how difficult writing can sometimes be, from the discipline of actually doing it, to the fact that writing and anxiety go hand in had, to the understanding that by writing a book you’re essentially sharing yourself with strangers. There’s no way to separate the personal from the professional. But she gives her readers advice  with humor and  honesty.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

51m2nd4g30l-_ac_us218_8. The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks-These short stories defy genre and description. They’re strange, inventive, weird, and uncanny. Though they draw on mythical sources and themes, there’s also something very modern about these stories. It’s hard to discuss some of these stories without spoiling them, but let’s just say that there’s a retelling of “The Wild Swans” a story about a space janitor, and a story about a time traveler desperately trying to stop an artist from creating a painting.

“It just goes to show, people said later. It just goes to show how fairy tales always stop too soon in the telling. Others said it was never a fairy tale at all. Anyone could see that. They were all too lovely, too obviously doomed. But the wisest said, that’s exactly what a fairy tale is. The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.

41xbvxm07hl-_ac_us218_9. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly– This is a unique look at Austen’s work that many Jane-ites would do well to read. It argues that in the twenty first century we frequently misread Jane Austen. Her work was more socially and politically aware than we realize. A 19th century readership would have been aware of many of the small references she makes to events that were then current, and they would have understood her work very differently from how we understand it now. Helena Kelly analyses Austen’s work, looking at several of the issues that Austen tackles explicitly and and subtextually. For example, Mansfield Park doesn’t just touch on the slave trade. References to cases and literature that a 19th century readership would know,  are pervasive and they make the book far more political than a 21st century audience realizes. I think that at times the author gets so caught up in her ideas that she reaches a little too far, but I also think that she makes some excellent points about reading Austen through the lens of her own time rather than ours.

And once we read like this, we start to see her novels in an entirely new light. Not an undifferentiated procession of witty, ironical stories about romance and drawing rooms, but books in which an authoress reflects back to her readers their world as it really is—complicated, messy, filled with error and injustice. This is a world in which parents and guardians can be stupid and selfish; in which the Church ignores the needs of the faithful; in which landowners and magistrates—the people with local power—are eager to enrich themselves even when that means driving the poorest into criminality. Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. But by and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.

61xeuwoxcl-_ac_us218_110. Night Film by Marisha Pessl– This is a weird book to describe. On one hand you can say that it’s about a reporter investigating the apparent suicide of a celebrated filmmaker’s daughter. On the other hand, you could describe it as an eerie, hypnotic adventure that gets better as the plot grows more convoluted. Throughout the pages we see props: newspaper clippings, website screenshots, a coffee stained transcript, and stolen police reports that are intended to blur the line between fiction and reality a bit more. It also blurs the line between film and literature a bit. The structure and the atmosphere of the book are very film noir. We learn about the victim’s father’s films in vivid detail. As we get into some possible theories regarding the girl’s fate, it starts to feel like the more outlandish possibilities are more likely than the realistic ones.

“The Shadow is what people are hunting throughout the tale. Or else it can dog the hero, refusing to leave him alone. It’s a potent force that bewitches as much as it torments. It can lead to hell or heaven. It’s the hollow forever inside you, never filled. It’s everything in life you can’t touch, hold on to, so ephemeral and painful it makes you gasp. You might even glimpse it for a few seconds before it’s gone. Yet the image will live with you. You’ll never forget it as long as you live. It’s what you’re terrified of and paradoxically what you’re looking for. We are nothing without our shadows. They give our otherwise pale, blinding world definition. They allow us to see what’s right in front of us. Yet they’ll haunt us until we’re dead.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been…

  • Teaching. I just survived the first week of school which somehow felt like it was about a month long. I have a good class (I think). The kids seem really sweet. But it takes stamina. It’s like those muscles got out of shape over the summer and I need to build them up again!
  • Reading Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. In it, the author argues that we’ve been misreading Austen’s work all these years. An early 19th century audience would have picked up on references and allusions that a 21st century reader misses. I agree with this much. Austen was far more serious than she’s typically given credit for.  Her novels have also been acknowledged as having a degree of social criticism, but that’s seen as secondary to a prim and proper romance with a slightly mischievous sense of humor. But Austen was less prim and proper than we think. Just the fact that she employed a marriage plot, meant life or death stakes for her characters. Marriages could mean financial ruin for families. Death in childbirth was just a fact of life.  If you read between the lines (which 21st century readers have to do, whereas 19th century readers would need to do far less) it becomes clear that there are many sexual indiscretions, out of wedlock pregnancies, and affairs. However, at times I felt as if, in researching some of what Austen’s novels reference, Kelly was looking to confirm her thesis, which leads to some bias. She also has a tendency to disregard whatever doesn’t support it. While I agree that certain characters have been misread, I don’t interpret everything in the same way that she does. But at times I do agree, and it’s always an interesting perspective.
  • Watching. I’m on season three of Grantchester and still really enjoying it. Though am I the only one who can’t completely embrace Amanda as Sidney’s love interest? Something about her just seems slightly…off.   I also recently discovered The Good Place which is a lot of fun. It’s sort of like Parks and Recreations meets Lost, meets Sartre’s No Exit in sitcom format.