Top Ten Tuesday: Outside My Comfort Zone

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

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September 3: Books I Enjoyed That Are Outside of My Comfort Zone (i.e., a genre you don’t typically read or subject matter you’re not usually drawn to)

I have a lot of respect for all these genres but generally they’re not where my personal taste tends to take me.  But there are exceptions to every rule!

Sciencey Nonfiction

I had some no-so-good science teachers in school that gave me a negative feeling for it for a long time. I’m trying to push myself out of that mindset because I do find some scientific topics interesting, but it’s a process. My knee-jerk reaction is still rather negative. For the most part these books aren’t hard core scientific but they have scientific portions or content.

51bven7uisl-_ac_us218_The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shalin

 

 

 

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

 

 

 

71zpcrwzwel._ac_uy218_The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

 

 

 

 

Romance

I’ve always enjoyed romantic subplots in books, but I think for a while I bought into the whole idea that romance as a genre was somehow less than other genres. I’ve come to see that’s not the case (I posted about it here and here) and I’ve been venturing into it a bit more, but I wouldn’t call it my comfort zone. I’m still figuring out my tastes in this genre.

51ldcwuzjyl._ac_uy218_Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale

 

 

 

51em7j9uqel-_ac_us218_A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux

 

 

 

91vhsxkxe7l._ac_uy218_An Extraordinary Union  by Alyssa Cole

 

 

 

 

Poetry

I like poetry a lot in small doses but I’ve never been one to sit for an afternoon and binge it. These are the exceptions to that rule.

51-xlyewull-_ac_us218_Crush by Richard Siken

 

 

 

817xb3ojwvl._ac_uy218_Transformations by Anne Sexton

 

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.

International Women’s Day Reads

March 8th is International Women’s Day. Women have done amazing things throughout history (often with no credit) and continue to do amazing things every day. Here are some books that I’d suggest to female (or any) readers who want to explore, celebrate, and understand womanhood.

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How to Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis and The Heroine’s Bookshelf are two books that look at how female protagonists have been portrayed in literature, and how these depictions have influenced the authors.

51-74n0euhl-_ac_us218_2. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf- In this extended essay Woolf asserts that there have been female literary geniuses throughout history and that the reason that so many go unknown is that women have traditionally not been educated and encouraged to write, as men have. They’ve been pushed in other directions. Even when they did produce great literature it was often anonymous or under pseudonyms, so their work could be judged on its own merits. “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” she says. Contemporary female writes still face sexism which doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. But enough of us “have money and a room of [her] own,” (what Woolf saw as the necessities if a woman is to write fiction) so that women are a very real force in publishing.

41appkv7zjl-_ac_us218_3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood– Atwood’s feminist dystopia is frighteningly close to reality, unfortunately. But then Atwood has said that when writing her tale Gilead (once the United States) she set a rule for herself: “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time.” She makes a strong case for why a woman’s ability to control and make decisions about her own body cannot be separated from discussions of feminism, or humanity for that matter.

51avlw-rakl-_ac_us218_4. Americanah by Chimiamanda Ngozi Adichie- Obviously the lens of my own experience is limited. It’s limited by various factors: education, economics, race, gender and a million others. Everyone has those limits to some extent. Adichie’s work helps us step outside those limitations for a little while. It can help us understand what the world may be like for someone different. In this case, I’m very different from Ifemelu, the female protagonist in this novel. But it allowed me to see some of the struggles that an immigrant woman of color faces in the US, in contrast to her native Nigeria. It also shows what life is like for a Nigerian woman in her home country. Ifemelu’s race and nationality influence how she is perceived in both countries. Through allowing me to see how Ifemelu’s race and gender affect her life, this book helped me see how my own life has been shaped by those factors in a very different way.

51bven7uisl-_ac_us218_5. The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess by Leonard Shalin– This is the only book in this post written by a man, but it may be of interest to anyone interested in gender issues. During pre-literate times, feminine values were dominant. Goddesses were worshiped and a lot of societies had a matriarchal structure. This changed with the rise of alphabetic literacy, which reconfigured the human brain. The act of learning to read exercises the left hemisphere of the brain, making it dominant over the right, which is more holistic and visual. The left brain is linked to masculine values and the right to feminine. As Western culture became more literate there was an insistence on a male deity and a rise in misogyny. Interestingly if you look at major witchhunts in the last millennium, they tend to happen within about a hundred years of a printing press being introduced to that part of the word. Does this explain why the past 2000 years have seen so much subjugation of women? That’s up to the reader to decide. It’s definitely an interesting thesis.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books About Books

The Broke and the Bookish are taking a break from their Top Ten Tuesday for the summer, but there’s no reason that I have to do the same. This week, I’m featuring some great books about books:

1. Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader by Anne Fadiman– This is a collection of essays about the authors lifelong love of books. She played with books rather than blocks as a child. She only considered herself to be married once she and her husband had merged libraries. The greatest gift she ever got was 19 pounds of dusty books.  These reflections are an exploration of the wonderful quirks of bibliophiles.

“You mean we’re going chronological order within each author?” he gasped. “But no one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!”
“Well,” I blustered, “we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I’d like to see that reflected on our shelves.”
George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce.”

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2. How to Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis– Samantha Ellis is a lifelong bookworm. In this book, she revisits and rereads her favorites from the past. How do childhood favorites hold up against lifetime experience? How do heroines of the past live up to feminist standards?

“All my heroines, yes, even the Little Mermaid, even poor, dull, listless Sleeping Beauty, have given me this sense of possibility. They made me feel I wasn’t forced to live out the story my family wanted for me, that I wasn’t doomed to plod forward to a fate predetermined by God, that I didn’t need to be defined by my seizures, or trapped in fictions of my own making, or shaped by other people’s stories. That I wanted to write my own life.”

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3. The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons From Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder  by Erin Blackmore– This one is similar to How To Be A Heroine but it’s less personal. It’s more of a look at how contemporary women can learn from past heroines.

“I am here to posit that it’s exactly in these moments of struggle and stress that we need books the most. There’s something in the pause to read that’s soothing in and of itself. A moment with a book is basic self-care, the kind of skill you pass along to your children as you would a security blanket or a churchgoing habit.”

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4. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett– This is a novella that imagines the Queen of England, becoming enamored of books later in life. The books she reads make her consider the world in different ways. Is she being selfish and isolated by wanting to bury herself with a book? Or does reading allow her to empathize with people in a unique way? Opinions are varied.

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference; there was something undeffering about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers are equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. . . [reading] was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized.

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5. Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell– This has a sequel titled More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. I worked in a bookshop one summer and I can vouch for the fact that customers do say some weird things! I heard something like this more than once:

CUSTOMER: I read a book in the sixties. I don’t remember the author, or the title. But it was green, and it made me laugh. Do you know which one I mean?

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6. Texts from Jane Eyre: and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg– If Mr. Rochester could text, he would do so all in caps. Obviously. If Daisy Buchanan had a smart phone she would only use it when driving.  What would you imagine Sherlock’s texts to Watson would look like? What about Ron’s text’s to Hermione? Gertude’s texts to Hamlet? Find out here!

-I KNEW IT
DID YOU LEAVE BECAUSE OF MY ATTIC WIFE
IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT

-yes
Absolutely

-BECAUSE MY HOUSE IN FRANCE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE AN ATTIC
IF THAT’S WHAT YOU WERE WORRIED ABOUT
IT HAS A CELLAR THOUGH SO YOU KNOW
DON’T CROSS ME
HAHA I’M ONLY JOKING”

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7. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi- Once a week, for two years, Azar Nafisi, and seven of her female students in the Islamic Republic of Iran, gathered together to read and discuss forbidden western literature. This book made me realize that reading a novel could, in fact, be one of the most subversive political acts.

I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions. To have a whole life, one must have the possibility of publicly shaping and expressing private worlds, dreams, thoughts and desires, of constantly having access to a dialogue between the public and private worlds. How else do we know that we have existed, felt, desired, hated, feared?

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8. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf- Men have a thousand years of literature to reflect their experience. Women have about a hundred. Why? Well, before that, women weren’t educated or encouraged to be readers and writers.  So how do women find a place for themselves in the literary canon? How do they insert their lives and experience into literary discourse? According to Woolf the process begins with a woman having a little bit of money and a room of her own.

My belief is that if we live another century or so — I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals — and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.

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9. The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain- This is a tough book to explain. Leonard Shlain looks at the history of humanity and shows how and why so many pre-literate societies were matriarchal, right brained models that espoused feminine values. When literacy was introduced to society, it drove cultures to more linear left brained thinking. The result of this was patriarchy and misogyny. Slain doesn’t argue for getting rid of literacy. He claims that being aware of this shift can help combat its affects. I don’t know if I completely buy into his theory, but it’s notable that witch hunts tended to pop up in societies where a printing press was recently introduced; and that when society became more image based women’s rights started to gain momentum.

A medium of communication is not merely a passive conduit for the transmission of information but rather an active force in creating new social patterns and new perceptual realities.

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10. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar– I love nineteenth century literature. From Jane Austen to the Bronte’s, to Mary Shelly, to George Eliot, this book examines how female writers established a more complex depiction of femininity and female relationships than had been depicted previously. The title of course, refers to the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre. How we approach this character says a lot about how we read the book. Is it a Cinderella story or a Bluebeard tale? I don’t always agree with everything in this book but it has been a hugely influential work of literary criticism, that will make you reread many old books with new eyes.

A life of feminine submission, of ‘contemplative purity,’ is a life of silence, a life that has no pen and no story, while a life of female rebellion, of ‘significant action,’ is a life that must be silenced, a life whose monstrous pen tells a terrible story.

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