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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.