Brief Thoughts on November Nonfiction Reads (2)

As I get back into blogging, one thing I’m going to have to keep reminding myself is to keep reading what *I* want to read. During my time away from blogging world, I read fairly widely and diversely. I find as I get back into the blogging world, I’m getting all kinds of great sounding recommendations that I’m searching out – but the end result is that my reading is threatening to become less diverse. Where you get your recommendations matters, as does the echo chamber that blogging often creates.

In the past week I’ve read another 4 non-fiction books. Here are some brief thoughts on each of them.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

This collection of essays was not at all what I imagined it was going to be. I tend to like going into books with little to no advance knowledge of their subject, because I like the surprise. Generally with nonfiction, however, I pick books based on their subject. In this case, I added the book to my hold list at the library based on a couple of tweets on her writing and how fantastic it was. Obviously I gravitated toward the nonfiction offerings, and this collection appeared to be about books and reading and so I requested it.

Imagine my surprise when I begin reading and find a collection of essays on religion, divinity, theology, history, anthropology, science, culture, politics, and more! The writing is beautiful and the ideas are expansive and kind and marvelous. Her take on religion is one which grants every human the highest level of intelligence. She dissects many texts on religion and atheism and science, bringing up different opinions or aspects, looking at anthropology and history, and comparing what we say to how we act. A key point she makes a few times on the subject is that all authors have their own biases and start from certain assumptions, and so even the most objective nonfiction books should be read skeptically. This is a great point that we should all remember, and is a great reminder on why we should read widely.

A truly remarkable collection of essays that, while I didn’t agree with in all parts, I still enjoyed reading.

I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global. (page 26)

Since it is intelligence that distinguishes our species and inventiveness that has determined our history, by what standard should an unconventional act or attitude be called unnatural? (page 145)

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller

I’m not sure what is dangerous about reading fifty books, but Miller does make a case that the reading that he did changed his life, reminding him of the pleasures of reading and bringing more happiness into his life. The book chronicles his decision to actually read many of the books he claimed, throughout his life, that he had actually read. From that list of 12, he continued on to read another 38. The titles are varied but ranging mostly from classic to male cult favorites.

At one point the author remarks on the internationalism of his list (which contained only British, American, Irish, Russian, and German authors…) while bemoaning the sparsity of female authors on the list. That tells you something, perhaps, of my thoughts on the books he chose – I found the lack of diversity and gender ratio (5 to 1) disappointing. While there are titles I want to read from among his list, some of the books didn’t interest me at all.

The idea of books having an impact on your life is of course something I would agree with. Miller’s constant assertions on the imminent death of libraries and paper books I agreed with less, as with his comments on giving up on a book, or his frequent disparaging comments on Dan Brown. He seemed to go back and forth on what could or couldn’t be included as a “great book”, often seeming rather dismissive of things he didn’t particular enjoy.

Could someone honestly call themselves well-read without reading Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, and Anna Karenina? Probably not. (page 53)

I frequently yearned to escape from my dull routine and a great book – of any stripe – offers us a cheap getaway from reality. But there are all sorts of holiday destinations and a multitude of ways to travel. (page 101)

Stitches by David Small

Another graphic memoir! (I swear I usually read a lot less memoirs…!) This book takes us through Small’s early life growing up in Detroit, his family troubles, and the results of a harmless operation. Beautiful illustrations and an interesting story.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig

I have some feelings about this book as well. It was interesting and informative, and I highly recommend it as a great historical look at an important scientific breakthrough that affects so many of us. That being said, I think it, as with any book, contains some biases.

As the author mentioned a few times, the results of some of the trials and tests may have gone differently if more women had had a say in what were acceptable side effects. Along the same line, I wondered if a woman or a person of color might discuss some points in more detail that Eig seems willing to brush aside. For example: Sanger was a remarkable lady who accomplished much, but Eig seems a bit forgiving of her part in the eugenics movement, almost arguing that she said the things she did and allied with groups that she did solely to advance her own cause. As well, the trials in Puerto Rico are still a point of bitterness and contention, and when I’ve read about them in the past they’ve been used as examples of how trials should not be done. Again, Eig almost brushes this off, as if it were necessary to do the trials in the way they did.

While an interesting read, I recommend reading with an open mind and then doing some independent research. I haven’t read it, but one book on my wish list dealing with this subject is Sonia Shah’s The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients.

What have you been reading for nonfiction November?

Brief Thoughts on November Nonfiction Reads

I had plans to actually get some longer thoughts posted on a few books I read and loved recently, but work got busy, and now my mom and aunt are visiting for a few days. My mom flew in from PEI with oysters and mussels so we’ve had a seafood feast, and now we’re entertaining ourselves with food and shows and more tasty food!

Since November 1st I’ve read 5 non-fiction books. That number is so high because three of them were graphic novels (which seems to be a bit of a theme this year in my reading, and in the nonfiction reading of others this month), one was a cookbook, and one was a book of poetry (which perhaps shouldn’t count, but I think do). Here are my thoughts on all five of them.

Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach

I picked this book up because I LOVE Dinner: A Love Story by Rosenstrach. It is basically my food bible. I’ve gifted it a number of times and each time I have, I get back rave reviews. It is a good story, but also packed with simple yet truly delicious (and complicated tasting!) meals. Unfortunately I didn’t love The Playbook nearly as much. It is written as a challenge – to cook 30 new meals for your family in 30 days, as a way to get out of the rut of eating the same thing and of kids being unwilling to try new things. The recipes look good, but if you’re already happy enough with your cooking and variety, I recommend her first instead of this one. If you need a challenge to help you out, then try this one.

Fun Home: A Tragicomedy & Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

Odd fact about me: I am generally very uncomfortable with memoirs. People are writing about their own lives, without the distance that an outside third-party might bring to their story, and they are writing while other inhabitants of their stories and worlds are still alive. This always leads me to wondering what those being written about actually think, and how much their lives may be disrupted by the publication.

Bechdel, in her defense, does talk about this. Are You My Mother? includes various discussions between her and her mother about the writing of Fun Home, about her mother’s thoughts on it, and about her mother’s thoughts on writing a book about her. It also included conversations with girlfriends and with therapists, and was really as much a look at the psychoanalytical theories on growing up and the bond between mothers and daughters, the effects of growing up in abusive homes, and so on as it was a true story about her and her mother.

Fun Home, rather than tackling the subject of the effects of family on later life, is all about her father, their life growing up with him, some of his history, and his death. It discusses his violence, his time in therapy, his brush with the law, and his sexuality. Bechdel compares her coming out as gay to his closeted gayness. I’m just going to say that the parts about her dad and his, basically, grooming of younger men did put me off slightly, as the power imbalance (he was a teacher) could have affected consent. Did anyone else wonder on this, or was that just me?

Both books are graphic memoirs, broken into different chapters which don’t necessarily flow in a chronological order. I found them both to be slightly disjointed, although interesting. Decent reads, though not favourites.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

Another graphic memoir, although this one, being more about the author herself and not disparaging of others in her life, didn’t make me quite as uncomfortable as memoirs generally do. In Relish Knisley discusses memories and food, and how the two are often linked for her. Her family is heavily involved in food and the food industry, and so food made up a large part of her life. Through the memoir she shares different memories through her life of food, cooking, and travels. Each chapter ends with a short recipe, which all looked interesting and delicious. I again found it decent but not a favourite.

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppernann

I saved the best for last – this collection of poems was incredible. The collection starts with an opening poem titled The Woods:

The action’s always there.
Where are the fairy tales about gym class
or the doctor’s office of the back of the bus
where bad things also happen?
Pigs can buy cheap building materials
just as easily in the suburbs.
Wolves stage invasions. Girls spit out
cereal, break chairs, and curl beneath
covers like pill bugs or selfish grannies
avoiding the mess.
No need for a bunch of trees.
You can lost your way anywhere.

So many lines and stanzas and whole poems in this collection really resonated and could become quotable favourites. Heppernann does a great job bringing the fairy tale to every day life, showing the ways the stories we are told as children continue to both resonate through our lives and haunt our lives. She expertly skewers the beauty myths and expectations placed on young women throughout, in unsettling, dark, and beautiful poems.

You can feel free to skip the rest, but I highly recommend you pick up this one!

What have you been reading through the start of nonfiction November?

Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

I am a huge fan of nonfiction, so am ridiculously excited about Nonfiction November! The event is being hosted by Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost In Books). The opening meme is being hosted by Kim – go on over and participate!

While I read a variety of types of books, nonfiction usually makes up between 30-40% by year-end. Right now it’s sitting at around 36% of my reading for the year so far. I’ve read 56 nonfiction books so far this year. Of those: 16 male authors, 44 female authors, 2 with trans or genderqueer authors (some were anthologies which contained multiple authors). 15 were by authors of color, another 9 were international (outside of US or Canada), and 14 included LGBTQ authors and topics.  Without really trying, mainly due to my interest in sociology and social justice, my reading tends to fall to at least 25% non-white authors and GLBTQ authors and topics.

New this year, 8 of the nonfiction titles I read were cookbooks or craftbooks. In the past I’ve not read many of these types of books. (Unsurprisingly, they skewed toward female authors, but white and het- cis- authors.) This has been due to my increased time for cooking and crafting. Another 7 could be classified as memoir – most of which I wasn’t a huge fan of (more on this later this month, I’m sure). Three were graphic novels.

Overall, quite a variety. You can see the full list of what I’ve read here.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I am having a hard time trying to pick just one or even just a couple. I want to list over a dozen here… But let me try to at least keep it only to a dozen! Here they are in order read:

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

As has Kim, I’ve recommended The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison many times! I’ve also recommended A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory From a Prairie Landscape by Candace Savage and Israel / Palestine and the Queer International by Sarah Schulman to various friends.

(I cheated by taking these off of my favourites list and moving them here – they are all also very high on my favourite reads of the year list!)

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?

Hmmm… to be honest, I think I’ve read fairly widely so far this year. I hope I can just continue that trend!

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I’m mainly excited to see more bloggers talking about nonfiction – it just doesn’t get nearly enough love! I’m also hoping to help ease myself back into blogging with it.

Readathoning

Good morning, fellow readers! I decided one way to jump back into book blogging was to join the readathon, which I have only done once before, in 2010. I’m not sure how long I’ll last today, but it should be fun while it lasts anyway.

Readathon Books (1) Oct 2014

Opening Meme: 8am EST

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today? I’m in the lovely city of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada.
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? Hmm… I’m kind of winging it today, no separate stack from which to read. I did decide to start the day with three short novellas though: Never Again by Flora Nwapa, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid.
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? As with a reading stack, I’m winging it here as well. I’ll be searching the house to see what I can find shortly!
4) Tell us a little something about yourself! Well, I’m back to blogging, semi-regularly, for the first time in a few years, after taking a few years off because of work and personal reasons. It feels really great to be back!
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to? It’s been a long time since I last participated in a readathon (2010!) so I’ll probably make all the same mistakes this time. For example, in my wrap up post last time I said I’d plan better with the snacks… Oops :)

Happy reading!

Mini-Challenge, Coffee or Tea: 9am EST

Well, an hour in, and I’ve left a few comments, chatted a bit online, and am 50 pages in to Never Again by Flora Nwapa. It’s a short novella by the first woman novelist from Nigeria about the Biafran war in the 1960s. The novella was published in 1975.

For the mini-challenge, I’m obviously always #teamCSLewis – I have a terrible addiction to David’s Tea, with a cupboard full of at least fifteen different types of (mostly non caffeinated) teas! This morning I’m having a cup of Coco Chai Rooibos, which is a delicious chai made with rooibos, coconut, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and red peppercorns.

Readathon (2) Oct 2014

(Funny story – there is a kid’s book called My Mother is Weird, by Rachna Gilmore (author) and Brenda Jones (Illustrator) about a kid whose mom is some kind of weird monster until she has her morning coffee. We had it in both French and English when we were growing up! If you are a coffee lover, as my parents were, and have children, they might need this book!)

Quick Update: 10am EST

I’ve finished Never Again by Flora Nwapa (85 pages). It was a great examination of war, and the coercion and propaganda that go along with it. The story is told from the point of view of Kate, a mother and wife, who is realistic and dealing with the realities of being on the losing side in a war, when any realism (as opposed to optimism and patriotism) is treated as sabotage.

Now I’m moving on to The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

Another Update: 12pm EST

Well, another two hours have passed. I’m still reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and am 43 pages in – really enjoying it so far, as I assumed I would!

During the last two hours I also took a break to return some library books and pick up some new ones (I also couldn’t resist sharing a photo of my beautiful library on instagram), and also made some stops for snacks – the bakery for scones and the grocery store for Halloween treats, hummus, pita bread, and raspberries!

Readathon (3) Oct 2014

 

Another Update: 2pm EST

Time sure flies when you’re having fun! I’ve finished The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, which was fantastic. It is comprised of two essays, one written for his nephew, and another longer one on religion, love, the state of race relations in the United States, and more. Baldwin really was a remarkable man, as his works can attest. Despite all that he saw and all that he lived through, he advocates, in these essays, love for one another and working together, and for both white and black Americans to grow and learn. For African Americans to simply try to be like whites wasn’t, he argues very eloquently, a great aspiration or solution.

I’m now 20 pages in to At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid, and so far it is slower reading, but still enjoyable. I’m not sure what I’ll pick up next!

Update: 4pm EST
It has somehow been 8 hours already, and we’re on hour 9! In the last hour I had a lot of fun creating a twitter cheer, and posting a picture of my most prized book possession (a signed first edition of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked). I’ve finished  At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid, a collection of short stories which were really more like prose poetry than stories.

I’m now struggling to settle on what to read next, having picked up and set aside a few different books so far. I’m leaning toward The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, as it comes very highly recommended.

Break Time Update: 6:30pm

I’m 62 pages in to The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and really enjoying the tales so far. But, the boyfriend has arrived (he was away for a week) and got super shocked by my new hair colour, and is going to take me for fooooooood glorious food :) Back to reading later!

Mid-Event Survey: 8:30pm EST

Over half-way! Spent the last two hours out eating and socializing, and now I’m back to the reading!

1. What are you reading right now? I’m still working on The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
2. How many books have you read so far? I’ve read three and a half – but all are under 110 pages :)
3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? Hmm… I’m probably going to end up sleeping for a few hours, I hate to admit it. I’m not really looking forward to it, but I’m not looking forward to anything else too much because I suspect I’ll be interrupted by sleep!
4. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those? Nothing that I wasn’t expecting!
5. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far? Not much!

Throwing in the Towel: 11pm EST

Well, I made it to hour 16, though with a two hour break for food from 6:30-7:30. I read four (short) books: Never Again by Flora Nwapa, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Together, these add up to a total of 399 pages. I also chatted a bit on twitter, shared some photos on instagram, and visited some blogs to leave comments. A successful readathon, if I may say so!

To all those with more stamina and late night abilities than I – happy reading!

Thoughts on Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada

I picked this book up from the library because I read a review of it somewhere and thought it sounded really interesting. Here in Canada we like to have this holier-than-thou attitude where we congratulate ourselves on how well we treat minorities, and on how great we were historically to our First Nations populations as well as to black Canadians (we were the terminus of the underground railroad you know!) The truth, however, is not so rosy. While we were accepting American slaves and guarding their freedom, Canadian slaves were escaping south of the border to freedom, for example. And the most recent example of Canada being the only member country in the UN to reject an Indigenous Rights document should tell you something about our treatment, historically and in the present, of First Nations people.

Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women's History in Canada edited by Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J Korinek

I thought Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada edited by Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J. Korinek would be essays on the history of women and First Nations people in Canada, for obvious reasons. While it was, but it also wasn’t what I expected either. The essays came out of a conference in honour of Sylvia Van Kirk, and revolve as much around her legacy and work as they do about specifically Canadian First Nations and women’s history (plus some New Zealand, Australia, and US history as well). The first three essays especially talked about her legacy and her life, and the remaining referenced her work in various ways while also advancing it in discussions more relevant to what I thought the book would be about.

Sylvia Van Kirk is known primarily for her thesis, published in monograph form in 1980, titled Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. It was one of the first examples of foregrounding women, especially women of colour, and the domestic sphere, in works of history – showing examples on how to locate these people within traditional archives. The work is well known and still referenced regularly, along with her later work on First Nations women in Canadian history.

Whether one studies the fur trade era or the modern western experience, sexual relationships and societal perception of those experiences are significant to understanding those societies. (page 61, ‘Daring to Write a History of Western Women’s Experiences: Assessing Sylvia Van Kirk’s Feminist Scholarship’ by Valerie J Kolinek)

There were some really interesting points made in the essays in the collection, but there were also some problematic aspects. On the positive side, I found especially great the essays regarding miscegenation laws and power in various colonies, on the ramifications of gender on maintaining status and the women protesting against the sexism in the system, and on the use of media in colonial time to perpetuate the national narratives. Overall, the essays were all well written and researched, and provide important and interesting pieces of our history.

On the other side of the coin, I found problematic the language throughout. First Nations people were sometimes referred to as Natives, as Indians, as Aboriginal (as in the title), and (very rarely) by actual tribe names. When quoting source documents, keeping the same language and naming as the source document makes sense. Within the essays outside of direct quotes, however, there didn’t seem to be much consistency, or much care to what might be the preference of those being discussed. Related to this, it seems that most of the essays are written by non-First Nations scholars. While that was raised once – on the importance of not only scholarship on First Nations history, but on the importance of First Nations scholars – the rest of the collection seemed to ignore this point, or not find it important.

Although not what I expected, and dealing more with the legacy of a scholar than with history in general, most of the essays in the collection still give it enough depth and history on the topic titles to make it worth a read – if you’re interested in things like alternate readings of history, First Nations women in Canadian history, and the importance of sexual and domestic histories.

Recommended online reading: CBC Opinion article What’s in a name: Indian, native, aboriginal or indigenous?

Thoughts on The Beast by Óscar Martínez

If you pay any attention at all to the news, and you live in North America, you are sure to have heard of the large numbers of Central American immigrants entering the Southern United States, and the hateful rhetoric that is coming from those same areas about these immigrants. Thankfully not everyone is so hateful, but for those who are, some education should be prescribed, and they should probably start with The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez cover

Written as a series of blog posts beginning in 2007 for El Faro, the first online newspaper in Latin America, it was published into a book in 2010 as Los migrantes que no importan. An English translation (by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington) was finally published in 2013 by Verso Books. The reporting is brave and in-depth, the prose is lyrical and hard-hitting, and the facts are terrifying.

Martínez, along with a photographer (one of a few different ones per trip), spent time travelling the same dangerous trails as the Central American migrants take through Mexico – talking to them, learning about what they live through, and dealing with the constant threat of danger. Some of his travels were by foot, some by train (The Beast of the title), some by bus, and sometimes by car along the border towns of the US-Mexico border. He spoke with migrants, with police and undercover agents, with priests, with Mexicans living in the towns, and with some of the gangsters. All of this contributes to the final package which is a book exploring all aspects of the trip migrants take, filled with personal accounts and vignettes.

The introduction by Francisco Goldman gives a good overview of what is to come, while at the same time highlighting the silence emanating from the United States on the dangers and violence both that the migrants are fleeing from (in many cases, the historical cause of which can be traced back to US foreign policy in the past), and that the war on drugs which fosters much of the violence they endure in Mexico. This is the only time it is truly made clear just how much responsibility the United States holds, that should be acknowledged, though it is the unspoken understanding through much of the rest of the book.

Individual stories in the book cover such topics as the impacts of injuries and what that means for a migrant, kidnapping, rape, death, murder, trafficking, and more. There is a lot of danger and fear, and the author makes clear that these things leave scars.

The suffering that migrants endure on the trail doesn’t heal quickly. Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death. The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies, they run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their heads over and over. It takes at least a month of travel to reach Mexico’s northern border. A month of hiding in fear, with the uncertainty of not knowing if the next step will be the wrong step, of not knowing if the Migra will turn up, if an attacker will pop out, if a narco-hired rapist will demand his daily fuck. (page 43)

Although a painful read, it is an incredibly important one. In documenting the stories, the trauma, and the pain, Martínez gives the immigrants a voice, and forces us to understand and take stock of the ways in which we are complicit, if not responsible. What have we done to educate ourselves? Have we unthinkingly believed any of the stereotypes or prejudices we’ve heard in the news? Is your country doing anything to help? If this book does nothing else, I hope that it forces people to recognize and remember our shared humanity, and the fact that we can easily, as this book makes clear, fall to violence and depravity against others if we forget.

On Being Thankful

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving. Monday is the actual holiday, and it is a day to be thankful for the harvest and other blessings. This is a slightly better official reason than in the US, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have historic racist and otherwise problematic undertones (and overtones) here as well. Thanksgiving feasts have happened irregularly, by explorers and settlers, starting in 1578, for reasons such as, good luck, good harvests, celebrating and remembering the ends of wars, in celebration of royalty, and so on.

I read an opinion piece in the CBC late last week which got me thinking more about how and why I celebrate the holiday. I highly recommend that you read this piece by Kim and Jordan Wheeler. They both raise some very important points. I’d challenge everyone to think hard about why they celebrate, and what they are celebrating. Some things on my mind, thanks to the Wheelers:

  • If we’re giving thanks for the harvest – have you actually participated in any harvest this year? Are you eating local and seasonal foods? I do have a small garden, and make an effort to eat local and sustainable food items. I also make an effort to preserve the harvest – my pantry (i.e. spare closet) is currently full of canned jams, sauces, pickles, and vegetables. In this sense, giving thanks for the harvest does make sense for me. This weekend one of the items on my to do list is tearing down my garden and preparing it for winter.
  • What other blessings through the year am I thankful for? This has been a fairly standard year, which means in many ways it is a great year in comparison to some. Should I be making lists of these blessings? (Is this gathering of all of our yearly blessings into a list supposed to warm us in preparation for the upcoming winter?)
  • If I’m not religious, to whom am I giving thanks? The official government proclamation of the holiday reads that we are giving thanks to the ‘Almighty God’. We can all give thanks in our own way, I hope, without the invocation of a specific government mandated deity.
  • Why do I need one day set aside on which to do this giving of thanks? Isn’t it just something we can be doing continually as we go through our life? Historically, apparently, settlers even shared their thanksgiving feasts with the First Nations peoples on the day of thanksgiving – how kind of them. One wonders what the country might look like if they extended the giving of thanks and the sharing into the remaining 364 days of the year.
  • Lastly, how are you giving thanks? Is it through a large meal? Was that food ethically harvested (i.e. how was the farmer paid / the workers treated / the animals raised) or are you giving thanks for blessings in your life through injustices committed against others?

Rather than the European settler idea of giving thanks on one day of the year, perhaps we should follow the tradition of many First Nations peoples to give thanks continually, as Kim and Jordan Wheeler point out. Rather than thinking only of ourselves throughout the year – each and every day we should be giving thanks for what we have and for those who have in any way assisted us. Every day we should be recognizing how our actions impact others, recognizing how our privileges affect our view of the world and what we see and what we get from it, and ensuring that when we are giving thanks we aren’t doing so selfishly but in full recognition of how our blessings affects others.

How that relates to here: I’m thankful for every visit and comment and interaction I get – thank you dear readers. I’m thankful I have access to great books. I want to be more cognizant of how my access to certain types of stories is limited: to who I am reading, and whose stories I am not reading. I want to always remember to thank those who have in any way enabled this. This weekend my book of choice is Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada edited by Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J Korinek.

Thoughts?

Thoughts on What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

I love reading, and I love introspection, so What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund was a rewarding and intriguing read. Throughout the book, Mendelsund delves in to the question posed in the title – what do we see when we read? What do we think we see when we read?  What do we remember when we think back over what we saw when we read?

What do you see when you read? For me, it often depends on what I’m reading. With nonfiction, I often see only the words on the page, and I read slower – reflecting on those words as I read. With fiction, I often am ‘seeing’, or rather, imagining, the story in my head as I read along. As Mendelsund points out, again and again in different ways, is that the story I think I am seeing in my head is not at all clear. I have no set image of how a character looks; I am more just imagining what is happening, very vaguely and as if seen as small snippets of items or actions. I’m able to immerse myself less in the story, with nonfiction, and analyze and think critically more than I can with fiction (on page 9 Mendelsund talks about immersion in reading and how that makes it difficult to analyze as we read).

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

I think also that how I ‘see’ (or rather, don’t see) nonfiction translates in part to why I enjoy reading it so much (page 322 vs page 212 – and what does that say about me, does it say that I’m missing some quality of the imagination?). It allows me a break from imagining images or characters in my head and allows me to focus on the words and on their meanings in a way that fiction doesn’t. Because of this, I’ve always considered nonfiction to be more of an ‘escape’ than fiction, because when reading fiction I’m bringing up the past to fit memories into cues (as Mendelsund says, when a book references a river, our visual of that river is made up of one or many rivers we’ve seen in the past). As with seeing the world – we blur, we rely on stereotypes and memories to reduce what we see to meaningful stories and future memories – the same is done while reading. Nonfiction, for me, is often a way to avoid that.

(And a note on above, although Mendelsund does make reference to how our memories and stereotypes of ‘types’ help us to ‘see’ when we read, I would have loved to see more of a discussion about how stereotypes continue to prejudice us and how they affect our reading. (Especially given the rather racist quote on page 373.))

I remember, at some point in the past, being startled to realize that most people have clear memories and pictures in their heads of people who they know. Often when I picture friends or family, I see a vague picture that is colored more by who they are and how they act than by specific features such as hair color, height, eye color, and so on. I found it interesting to have it pointed out that this is also how we ‘see’ characters in our reading.

Among the great mysteries of life is this fact: The world presents itself to us, and we take in the world. We don’t see the seams, the cracks, and the imperfections. (page 405)

A few other thoughts:

The way the book was illustrated really forced me to read more slowly, and pay attention to how the text and the images built upon each other. For a book about how we ‘see’ our reading, the images gave more context and feel to the words. However, for a book so concerned with ‘seeing’, it is worth mentioning, I think, that the way the book was written makes it less accessible to those who have vision problems: the way the text in some instances crosses the fold, making it hard to read; the white text on a black background on some pages, which is more difficult to read than black text on white; the many, many images that would be difficult or impossible to translate into a reading software for those who are blind; and the varying fonts and sizes of the text which would also be difficult to translate to audio. In that way, the book is leaving out a large audience.

As well, the book references other books and authors very frequently, as would be expected in a book about the act of reading. As with many of these types of books, those referenced are from the standard canon (read: white, male, old, with few exceptions). It is understandable, the need to use reference points which are understood by many, in these situations. But it also makes me think about how this [white, male, old (wmo)] canon reinforces itself and maintains itself through these types of works. A [wmo] canon was created, and we can attack it and request its expansion, but until such a time as it is expanded and we have common references outside of it, books such as this (especially when written by wm authors) will continue to reinforce the existing canon. So which comes first: An expanded canon? Or should we still expect books like this to reference a more diverse selection of books without knowing for sure how many have read them? (For example, instead of yet another work about Tolstoy’s Anna, what about a work which uses Achebe’s Okonkwo. Surely by now we can expect most people to understand that reference as well?)

All in all, a very interesting read that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in the process of reading.

(A final note: I got this book through the Book Riot Quarterly box which I enjoyed though with international shipping found slightly overpriced. I did really enjoy this book, though, so I may get the next one still before deciding to cancel or not.)

Welcome…

Oh hello. Thanks for visiting my new site! My archive of posts is at amckiereads.wordpress.com.

The thing is, I’m finally back to reading again which is a great thing. And I often want to discuss what I read with people – especially aspects in what I am reading such as racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and etc. I want to have these conversations as part of my desire to see an improved publishing world. But I also have gotten out of the habit of writing about books, and am feeling like I don’t have the language / education / background necessary to write these posts and have these discussions.

I’ve started posting some thoughts on what I’m reading, and hopefully some day I will be able to discuss in the way that I would really like to.

Another Discussion on Misrepresentation in Literature

After my post the other day, and completing Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), I wanted to talk ramble a bit more about the quote I highlighted:

But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.

As I commented last post: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words? 

Previously I was talking specifically about rape in literature, but there are implications much more broadly. There is no such thing as true representation in literature. It isn’t just sexual assault that gets stereotyped and misrepresented in literature, when it is discussed at all. We also see a lack of true diversity around race, sexuality, gender, nationality, religion, and more in our popular literature.

Along the same vein, another book I read recently asks us to consider more carefully what does get published. In Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2013), Lila Abu-Lughod talks about the international human rights regime and the ways in which it interacts with Muslim women. Among other themes and discussions, she spends one chapter picking apart the popular literature that exists around Muslim women. This literature, she contends, falls mainly into two categories:

  1. The human rights approach that gives us examples and numbers and statistics about the violence that women live with.
  2. The pulp fiction novels telling sensationalized (and often fairly pornographic) tales of escape from forced marriages, attempted honor killings, and other extreme situations.

All of these books, Abu-Lughod contends, allow the reader – who is necessarily assumed to be ‘Western’ and non-Muslim – to feel good about their own situation and countries and imagine that they are superior and enlightened. By donating time or money, these books tell us, we can fix these “other” cultures which are so backwards and bring them to modernity. We don’t have to think critically about the same issues of violence and murder that happen in our own Western countries because they are individual cases, not cases stemming from cultural reasons. And we don’t have to think critically about factors causing the violence in these Muslim countries, because we can be assured they stem solely from the ‘backwards’ culture and religion.

(Note: This is not to say, the author makes clear, that these instances of abuse and violence aren’t true or that we shouldn’t care about them and work to end them. What she is saying is that we need to think critically about all of the causes of the injustice and violence instead of simply placing the blame with religion or culture.)

The language of women’s rights and Muslim-women-needing-saving-from-Islam simplify and exaggerate. The language also ignores all the other factors that lead to situations of violence and lack of autonomy. Politics, economics, religion, histories of colonialism, class inequality, developmental agency and government policies, violence and oppression especially state or war related, and more all work together to cause women’s oppression. Some of these issues were caused or are still caused in part by our own consumption habits and foreign policies.

As she says:

 […] honest self-reflection about how the privileges of elites or middle-class people might be connected to the persistence of devastating inequalities – whether on distant shores or in our backyards – is essential to any ethical stance toward women’s human rights. (page 225)

What she points out in the section on the literature, which I thought was especially interesting, was that we need to think critically about why certain types of books are published and become popular. The Muslim pulp novels about women who escaped from brutal situations became especially prevalent and popular around the same time as the justifications were being made for the war on terror. These books and ideas often go hand in hand with the religious Right, Christianity, and justifications for going to war. They all let us think that the only place left to improve the rights of women is in other countries, and that war and occupation is the way towards that.

(Random side note: due to the fact that I recently alphabetized my non-fiction shelf, Abu-Lughod’s book now has to sit shelved unhappily next to Ayan Hirsi Ali…)

Stereotypes and prejudices exist in literature, sometimes purposely and sometimes not. What gets published is determined in large part by a handful of large companies. What gets media attention is determined by the same groups as control the regular news media in most cases. When the argument in a book is too easy and is simply telling us to export our culture and ideals onto other peoples, we should stop and question whether we are truly getting the full picture.

Basically these two rambling rant-posts are my reminders to keep thinking critically about what I read, what is and is not included in each book or article that I read, and what I’m not able to read because it’s not been considered worth publishing.