Title: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Author: Anderson, Scott
Length: 577 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Politics, History
Publisher / Year: Signal / 2013
In this book Anderson takes the reader on a sweeping historical journey following Lawrence and three other individuals in the Middle East just prior to and throughout the course of World War I. During this epic tale we also get a look into significant events in the lives of many others who helped to shape the destiny of the region, either by working with or against the intentions and wishes of the main characters. Although the cast of characters is rather vast, and the story line jumps from one area to another to follow each of the main four, the characters are all interesting and different enough to remain fairly easy to follow.
The main characters, other than Thomas Edward Lawrence of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame: are William Yale, a fallen American aristocrat who both acted as a spy for the US and as an employee of Standard Oil of New York; Dr. Curt Prüfer, a German scholar and spy, later a Nazi official; and Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish scientist who created an anti-Ottoman spy ring in Palestine and worked for the Zionist cause of a Jewish homeland. Each of these characters led interesting lives worthy of being discussed in a book such as this, and their stories added to that of Lawrence’s in highlighting the actions going on in the region and in helping to shape what was to come. At the same time, however, the stories fit together only in that sense – in that way the book is somewhat less about Lawrence himself then it is about the entire Middle Eastern theatre during World War I.
Lawrence’s life has proved to be one full of contradictions, as any life is. His past biographers, according to Anderson, have mostly skewed facts to fit their preferred narrative. In this book, instead, Anderson uses the historical sources to tell the story much more broadly and thus giving a fuller picture of the whole conflict and facts with which Lawrence was dealing. In this way he comes off as neither a hero nor a villain, though his best and worst moments are brought to light. Instead he comes across as a complex individual who was trying in many ways to live by a certain code of honour, while still being pulled into the cruelties and horrors of war.
Altogether this was a compelling and intriguing story that delves into the historical facts of World War I that are often overlooked – that of its Syrian front. Recommended reading for anyone who enjoys history, and anyone interested in the history of the current situations in the Middle East.
Referenced in the epilogue is another great read – Paris 1919 Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan- which delves in detail into the peace conference and how the various decisions were made. In this work, the story continues and highlights the after-effects of the actions in this book. Give it a read to get more insight into what happened next, as it is only discussed in very brief overview in Anderson’s epilogue.
Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach is another great read from the same period in history. I read this one back in 2009, and I’m fairly certain, based on limited recollections, that there are certainly discrepancies in the stories – in fact the book jacket for this one claims “Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history”. Anderson’s work makes little mention of her, so we can only wonder if Anderson’s historical sources didn’t mention her, if he instead ignored her (only one women is shown as having any agency and ability in Anderson’s work, and figures in Anderson’s book also feature in Wallach’s), or if Wallach made her story into more than it truly was. Nevertheless, both are incredibly interesting reads.
Title: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
Author: Pozner, Jennifer L.
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Culture
Publisher / Year: Seal Press / 2010
Why I Read It: Great reviews by Cass and Kim, fellow non-fiction readers.
Date Read: 04/30/13
Anecdote one: When reality television was first beginning to be a ‘thing’ and Survivor started, I remember my mother rolling her eyes at the “reality” aspect, commenting that obviously it was fully staged. If it was “really” surviving, there wouldn’t be cameras there. She was my first educator on media literacy and critical watching. Of course, I really wasn’t allowed watching much television, so it was more critical listening to the news articles about it and what friends were saying…
Anecdote two: I had a roommate for around two years, a few years back, who loved reality television… and when I say loved, I mean: she watched it constantly. Whatever reality television show they thought of, she was watching it. And let me tell you, there were some pretty terrible shows. Many of those shows are discussed in this book; some were bad enough they aren’t even mentioned. The residual effects of that alone were enough to turn me off of television pretty much fully, even though I’d escaped the ‘no television’ rules of the parental home mentioned above…
Book thoughts: Pozner has written a compulsively readable (much more addicting in my mind than the shows she is writing about) book about the stereotypes, prejudices, and flat out lies that hide behind the reality programming taking over TV. The research behind the book included countless hours of watching reality TV, as well as advocacy work educating youth about the power of media, reading, and more. While we like to think we are smart enough not to be tricked into believing everything we see, Pozner outlines how the shows actually do have an effect on viewers.
No matter how independent we might be as adults, how cynical we consider ourselves, or how hard we’ve worked to silence external cultural conditioning, decades of sheer repetition make it extremely difficult to fully purge societal standards from our psyches. -pg 47
Each show, to succeed, as Pozner shows brilliantly both with examples and with actual quotes from producers, plays on pervasive cultural stereotypes and ingrained biases. They denigrate women, they play on racial fears, they rely on stereotypes of consumption and class, and are written around advertisers requests. Consider shows such as The Bachelor promoted as ‘fairy tale romance’… how many of the fairy tales actually last? How much diversity is in the cast members, comparative to the diversity in actual marriage statistics? How are women and men treated and shown relating to each other? Is the consumption flashy and over the top, but aimed at realistic and ordinary? When we see only short clips, how do we know that we are seeing a full truth? And etc.
Despite having only seen a few episodes of a few shows (as outlined above, *shudder*), I didn’t feel lost or left out as when shows are first mentioned enough description is given to understand the premise. While reality TV producers like to say that they are simply providing ‘what the public wants’ the truth is that many reality shows are extended despite lackluster viewing because they don’t cost much (or anything) to produce, and are often paid for by marketers and corporations to promote products. The descriptions and discussions of the industry itself, from executives to producers to advertisers, were fascinating and disturbing. The amount of say they have in shows is incredible, as is the amount of product placement and the costs paid for this airwave time; time that isn’t even billed as actual advertisement.
Pozner in this book is not arguing against watching reality television – in fact she reaffirms that she still watches it – but she is rather asking viewers to be critical media consumers. Consider what you are watching, be aware of stereotypes and prejudices, as well as advertiser messages. Educate yourself, and advocate for better shows with better premises that show life more as it is, including its diversity, equality, and respect for others. Try playing ‘Backlash Bingo’ or a drinking game when you next watch reality TV – with helpful suggestions for play included in the book! (Though you may want to consider completing the drinking game with non-alcoholic beverages, for the sake of your health, considering the shows…)
Title: A Question of Choice: Roe v. Wade 40th Anniversary Edition
Author: Weddington, Sarah
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Publisher / Year: Feminist Press / 2013 first published in 1992
Source: Feminist Press Subscription
Why I Read It: With all the debate on abortion these days, it seemed a fitting read.
Date Read: 05/10/13
Weddington successfully argued and won Roe v. Wade at only twenty-six years old, and the win was seen as a victory for women and for reproductive choice. Now, forty years later, we’re still arguing many of the same points as we were before, and seem to be constantly under threat of reverting to the status of pre- Roe v. Wade, when illegal abortions were common (and incredibly unsafe). In this book Weddington recounts her life prior to and after the case, talking about how she became involved, all those that assisted and played a part, and why it is so important as a historical victory and as a basic right.
A Question of Choice was really interesting as a memoir of a successful woman, and can be recommended for that reason alone. Weddington’s journey into law school, through advocacy, in elected office, and all avenues of her life was very readable and engaging. For any woman, especially one who would like to go into law, her stories of professors and classes, as well as her triumphs, would prove a compelling read. Beyond that, she would be a fantastic role model of success for any of us looking to succeed in whatever path we choose. Her dedication and drive were remarkable.
Beyond that, though, is the full discussion of the status of reproduction choice pre- Roe v. Wade, the advocacy work by individuals and groups, the health risks and personal stories of those who suffered, and the timeline of attacks ever since the case was won. As a historical source, Weddington makes clear the challenges faced by women in controlling their reproductive lives, and the health hazards they had to live through historically. For all of us who didn’t personally experience these times, it is especially important for us to realize what the absence of legal abortion means. A lack of legal abortion does not actually lead directly to less abortion; it leads to unsafe abortions and so many more deaths and complications. The (perhaps unfortunate to many) truth is that abortion is something that exists in all countries, no matter the legality of it.
One especially fascinating part of the reading for me was when she discussed the many arguments against her case in the Supreme Court. I was amazed that many of them are ones we are still hearing now, but that have somehow become more accepted or mainstream. Many of the arguments that were dismissed are now back stronger and more forceful than ever. History, in this case, hasn’t moved in a straight line but has rather circled around to the same place.
Personal side note: While abortion itself seems to be a touchy subject for many, what is important to remember is that abortion is but one small piece of women’s wide range of reproductive choices. These choices include the vast array of options for controlling one’s life and caring for a family – having a family, managing illnesses, and taking care of yourself. The current debate seems to focus single-mindedly on abortion while ignoring that for each fetus, there are corresponding needs that will come along such as care, shelter, and nourishment. Without a strategy that focuses on this, a strategy remains as anti-choice, not in any way pro-life. Pro-life would indicate that the strategy also encompasses families, mothers, fathers, and the children themselves after they are born.
Whether you agree with abortion or not, the fact is that it is a necessary tool for many in controlling their health and their lives. The death of those requiring medical treatment because doctors won’t perform abortions is but an extreme example. For this reason, I am unwilling in the comments to discuss the fact that you might not agree with abortion as an option. Instead, I would ask you to read on the facts of life for women pre- Roe v. Wade and think about what reverting to that time would mean for the health of women, and of their babies and families.
Last year I read a number of books which I didn’t discuss at all here. I’ve been rather offline (due to personal and professional reasons) for quite some time, and I likely won’t get caught up again with reviewing all of these books. Instead, I thought I’d list out the titles for you and ask – are there any of these that you would especially love to hear a little bit more about? Let me know in a comment!
- Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada by Lawrence Hill – this book explores life in Canada as for Hill, a multiracial man. He discusses stereotypes, racism, and changes in society over the years. Really interesting and recommended for Canadians especially.
- Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore – the third book in Cashore’s Graceling series, a young adult trilogy about fierce heroines who live by their own rules. This is my favourite and most recommended young adult series.
- Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco – part novel, part graphic novel, this book deals with the slow decline of life in a number of American towns and cities, and the reasons behind this decline. Very interesting and well done.
- Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica – I listened to this one on audio, a memoir from a memoir that originated via a blog, originally. It wasn’t a favourite, but was interesting and with some humourous moments.
- The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – a favourite that’s done a tour of many blogs I read, I enjoyed this discussion of the cells harvested from Lacks and used to enrich many – but not her descendants.
- Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu – a young adult / middle grade book read as part of Aarti’s More Diverse Universe challenge. I always love Okorafor’s works as they contain remarkably diverse characters and settings, and her story lines are always fantastic and fun.
- Ender’s Game by Scott Orson Card – a very non-diverse and non-accepting science fiction read… that I could have done without. Wince.
- The Survival League by Gordan Nuhanovic, translated by Julienne Eden Busic – a collection of short stories by a Croatian author. While some where interesting, I wasn’t enthralled.
- Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing up Latina by Rosie Molinary – mentioned by Eva I then picked this one up on sale. It’s an interesting look at life as a Latina in the USA. Probably even more interesting for a Latina, but does highlight racism and unique differences for a group of citizens, so a worthwhile read for anyone.
- Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction edited by Sabrina Chap – a fantastic collection of essays, art, music, photographs, and fiction exploring the link between creativity and self-destruction by female artists. Published by one of my favourites, Seven Stories Press.
- Swoon by Caledonia Curry (Swoon) – a street artist I learned about in Live Through This and fell in love with because of her amazing work, such as this one. This is a coffee table book about her life and her projects.
- Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere by Lauren Leto – “funny” work on what it means to like certain books, caricatures based on what people like or are on their shelves, how to “fake” having read certain classics. I found the humour didn’t match my own, but I did agree that we should change to the term bookcat rather than bookworm.
- Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates – completely crushing and heart-wrenching yet incredibly powerful and engaging read about the aftermath of a rape in a small town. Very well written.
- The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly – this was kind of a work assignment. It was rather dull and… well… obvious. Not terrible though.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson – interesting and strange. Fairly well written and multi-faceted female character for an early white male science fiction book. (Is it bad that this surprises me?)
- Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti – I wonder this myself so… seriously though, this book was an interesting look at the reasons that people have kids, and an honest look at life after kids. She talks about things parents should probably know and discuss prior to the baby.
- Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore – this had a varied list of authors discussing passing in its many different forms, examining culture and gender and conformity and power. Very awesome. I may have to read it again soon.
- The first few books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series – yawn, but with the last book coming out, I wanted to re-read and finally complete the entire series.
So there you have it. Some reading, few reviews, and, for some titles, little memory.
Title: Tender Morsels
Author: Lanagan, Margo
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher / Year: Knopf / 2008
Why I Read It: I had heard too much about it, and too many bloggers I love and trust recommended it.
Date Read: 21/11/12
I’ve already reviewed this book in detail here, and I do recommend you check out that review if you haven’t already. I really loved this book and think it is an incredibly important addition to the shelves of young adult literature. We need books like this that deal with sensitive topics with which teens deal. Desperately need.
What I want to do here is discuss a specific aspect / string of events of the book that I’ve been mulling over. If you’ve not ready the book, you may want to skip the thoughts below. If you’ve read it, I would love to know your thoughts.
I’ve been considering this morning the bears in the novel.
Through the course of the novel, as the boundaries between the two worlds begins to grow holes, a couple of boys end up accidentally in the world of the girls as bears. They are said to be among the best men in their communities as they were chosen for the event during which they accidentally jump through and end up in the wrong place. While there, however, the bears act quite differently.
I’m thinking of this as a critique of the “boys will be boys” type mentality. Lanagan shows vividly that while boys and men may end up in very similar circumstances, they can (and do) act in very different ways. Despite being thrown into the same scary and different world, and being stuck in the skin of a bear, the boys in fact have completely different mentality because of how they were raised and what was taught to them.
We are taught in our culture that the correct responses to rape are to question the survivor and her actions / clothing / life, and the idea that what a girl wears should have any bearing on the validity of her story. Many feminists are constantly pointing out that questioning a girl’s appearance or setting rules on what girls should wear is in effect claiming that men can’t control themselves. That rather than being sentient human beings in control of their decisions and actions, they actually are simply animals acting on instincts they can’t control. Lanagan here shows through the actions of the bears the idea that men aren’t one monolithic group who can’t control themselves. She shows that instead there are a range of responses by men and boys on a continuum from terrible to fantastic – and that these responses are a choice.
One is respectful and kind, another tries to take advantage of one of the girls against her will. Clearly not all boys or men are terrible, and this is a beginning of Liga’s learning process and a part of their safety structure when back in the real world – they’ve already learned that some bears (and thus some men) are good and know how to be respectful, and this helps them to deal with those who aren’t. The difference is very much nurture over nature in the way these men behaved in the ‘safe world’ of Liga and her girls.
Title: Savage Times: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment
Author: Schechter, Harold
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: St. Martin’s Press / 2005
Why I Read It: It was mentioned in a really interesting Bitch! magazine article on our fascination with true crime shows.
Date Read: 05/04/13
A somewhat repetitive and self-serving – but still interesting – look at violence in popular entertainment throughout history.
Schechter is a professor of literature and an author of true crime and serial killer non-fiction. In this book he takes on the critics who argue that our present day popular culture offerings are exceptionally violent and polluting to the mind, and that the movies and video games, for example, have a negative influence on the minds of those who enjoy them. He argues throughout that our popular media now is actually much less violent than it has been in the past, and goes through historical documents and studies to prove this.
By showing the exceptional levels of violence not only in printed works, but in the torture and public entertainment in Europe, the UK and America, Schechter is able to point to the fact that entertainment in the past is enough to turn our stomachs now. One easy example that he uses is that of public executions, which were seen as almost festival like activities at one point with children being brought to witness the torture and death.
That we react with such horrified incredulity to the mere description of the victim’s suffering is significant in itself, suggesting that – for all our exposure to virtual violence – we are actually quite sheltered from the real thing and have a very limited tolerance for it. (page 91)
Schechter also shows that the same arguments are used again and again through time, on each occasion of a new form of entertainment (novels, comic books, radio, television, movies, and now video games). Throughout history, he shows, the morality crusaders often published the same sensationalized violence but simply added a moral lesson to the end. Through the lens of ‘moral instruction’ this violence becomes acceptable.
[...] the perennial crusades against popular culture are, as much as anything else, an expression of nostalgia for an imaginary past that always seems simpler and more “childlike” than the harsh and complex reality of the here-and-now. (page 132)
Despite the interesting history, well written arguments, and excerpts from historical documents, the book wasn’t a favourite. It was quite repetitive with the same arguments being reiterated again and again. Additionally, each chapter contained at least one excerpt that lasted for a page or two in a separate boxed section. These sections really just restated the points already made, but sometimes with different examples. The result read almost as if the book had been written twice, with the shorter book simply inserted instead of having the materials be integrated.
The other thing that bothered me in the book was the gendered language. Boys play violently, boys play video games, boys played with fake guns, and etc. And the conclusion had a comment that serial killers these days mostly “preyed on hookers” leaving the average middle-class person “who probably worries most about crossing paths with a serial killer” with less to fear (page 161). Needless to say, these types of statements didn’t sit too well.
In the end, an interesting read, though not one I would highly recommend. If you are interested in media studies or violence in popular culture give it a read, but else it’s one that can be skipped.
Title: The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Montreal
Author: Cooper, Afua
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Harper Perennial / 2006
Source: Chapters Indigo
Why I Read It: I heard about this book from Marilyn of Me, You, and Books who has a great review on her site.
Date Read: ?/12/12
An examination of slavery and race in Canada via the historical documentation of the trial of a slave woman in early Montreal, accused of setting a fire which burned much of the city in 1734. The book provides an important voice for early slaves, as the trial was during a time before any currently acknowledged written slave narratives.
The main focus of the book is the life, what little is known of it, of Marie-Joseph Angelique. Through various historical records Cooper was able to pull bits and pieces together, though the main of the details come from the trial transcripts. Through these documents she is able to pull together an engaging story not only about the life of one woman, but about the status of slaves in the early colonies, and the running of the early colonies themselves. The story of Angelique is interesting, but doesn’t provide enough in itself for the entire book. Instead Cooper has used it as a narrative frame around the larger historical issues that the story brings to light.
While race isn’t often a focus of public conversation and study here in Canada, that doesn’t mean that we have achieved any kind of ‘post-racial’ society. As well, just because we like to argue that slavery was ‘better’ or ‘easier’ in Canada does not erase the fact that slavery did exist, and that it was as brutal as it was elsewhere on the continent. Throughout this work Cooper examines the documentation around slavery in Canada, lays out the laws governing slavery, and the misery of those who suffered under them. The fact that slavery isn’t a part of the narrative of Canada is one that Cooper seeks to redress.
For example, in talking about the ways in which Angelique’s story is told in present day by historians she talks about how the silence around race issues causes a distortion of the facts:
“Trudel and his cohorts are all modern Quebec historians, and they may have been influenced by the fact that today one does not examine (publicly) the race question in Quebec unless one is talking about the French and English. These historians refuse to see that Angelique was an enraged woman who wished to run away from enslavement not because of Thibault [romance], but because of slavery itself.” (Page 289)
Through quotes like this, it also a critical examination of what we have previously read or what we encounter written on race relations in Canada. We have to consider – is what we are writing accurate to the historical documents? Could it be clouded by our current perceptions of the past? And so on. Cooper has made a very important contribution to our history shelves.
Highly recommended to all Canadians, and anyone interested in the history of slavery.