Sunday Salon: the Pre-Yule Glow Post
This has been a really difficult holiday season for my family, but last night we finally got our tree decorated, and I’ve been reading by Christmas lights ever since. I always find the week before and after Christmas some of the calmest and most delicious of the year; I’m sure that stems from winter breaks from school. And I usually end up reading a ton of wonderful books! Last night began fulfilling that prophecy, when I finished three five-star reads in a row, so I can’t wait to see what the end of the year has in store for me. But first I need to talk about the books I read last week; somehow, despite still watching my niece 8-12 hours a day, I ended up reading quite a bit!
I have a thing for boarding schools, and for the teaching of classics. I know the latter stems from my fervent wish to study Latin dating from fifth grade, which I finally achieved in high school. The former is less explicable to me…but there’s a certain romance about the idea of a cloistered community devoted to education that I just love. (And, I went to a tiny liberal arts college that made all 1100 of its students live on campus. So there’s that!) That’s why as soon as I came across The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate, I knew I had to read it! When I tell you the plot summary, it’s going to sound a bit steroetypical. So first, I want to say that what I loved most about the book is how convincing all of the characters were. Southgate has a real gift for bringing them to life; the story is told through three rotating narrators, and each one has such a distinct voice that I instantly knew whose head I was inside when a new chapter started. Usually, I’m not a fan of alternating narrators since they tend to feel too similar, but The Fall of Rome used the device to its full advantage. I loved getting to know each character, seeing them from both inside and outside, and I was fully invested in what would happen to them. Also, Southgate has plotted the novel like a classic tragedy; you can feel the ending looming, and you can see what the characters are doing that will inexorably drive them there, but at the same time you keep hoping maybe something will happen to stop that progress. It was a great experience! Ok, so about the plot. Jerome Washington has been teaching Latin at an elite all-boys boarding school in Connecticut for decades; he’s also the only African American professor on staff. Rashid Bryson comes from the inner bit of New York City on a full scholarship, and still reeling from a personal loss is taken aback at this new environment full of privileged white boys. Jana Hansen is a white middle-aged English teacher just starting her first year at the school after a career in Cleveland’s inner public high schools. The novel is set place over one school year and looks at the relationships between these three and how they all change one another. I really enjoyed reading this one, always looking forward to picking it back up (although at around 200 pages, it went by pretty quickly), and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who’s drawn to boarding schools or classics stuff like me, to anyone interested in ‘race issues’ (but please don’t think this is an ‘issues’ book; it’s a character book, in which the characters’ races play an inevitable role), or just anyone who enjoys a kind of classic story.
I finished Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti after that, but I’m saving my thoughts on it for a Women Unbound challenge group review. Which means that next up is Sandman, Vol. Four: Seasons of Mist by Neil Gaiman. Now, y’all know I’m a card-carrying Gaiman fan. But this book confirmed that Sandman simply isn’t for me. I thought the story itself was really fascinating. But the artwork continued to upset me; there was a lot of unnecessary (to me) gore and violence, the (few) women characters continued to have ridiculous bodies (I actually put bookmarks in so I could take pictures of these bodies to prove it, since last time I mentioned this problem a reader questioned what I was talking about, but my camera won’t work and I had to return the book, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that even a woman who was supposed to be starving and part of a torturous afterlife and whose ribs we could see still had at least c-cup, perky breasts, which is patently absurd), and when I thought of continuing to read the series (I read Season of Mists as part of the Absolute Sandman Volume Two) my stomach started hurting. So, I’ve simply decided to accept that for me, at this stage of my life, I’m not the right reader for Sandman and to stop torturing myself by forcing myself to like it. Instead, I’ll try out Gaiman’s other graphic books, and continue to reread his prose novels and short story collections, which I adore!
It’s really difficult for me to talk about The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read it for the Dewey’s Books Challenge, and Dewey read it right around the time that she passed away. The one-year anniversary of her passing was last month, and I found myself grieving over the loss of such a good friend and wonderful person. So I knew going into the book that reading it would be a bit bittersweet. And for those of you who read it, you can imagine why after finishing it I rather felt as if I had been punched in the stomach, with all the wind knocked out of me. But those are personal reasons I didn’t love the book. I also have some more literary ones. Quite frankly, I’m always skeptical of books that throw in a lot of philosophy. Once upon a time, I was very into reading, analysing, and discussing philosophy, and compared to the careful arguments and structure of philosophical texts, fiction that incorporates philosophical ideas feels a bit glib to me. When I see character asserting something, I start mentally demanding their chain of reasoning, or developing counterarguments in my head. So, during much of this novel, I couldn’t simply relax and enjoy it because of the constant philosophical musings of our two narrators. Also, I found them both to be a bit too precious at times. That being said, despite my personal and intellectual reservations, much of the book charmed me. I’d say about fifty percent of it at least. Unfortunately, I found the ending anything but charming, and it seemed to bring my annoyances with the book into sharper relief. Obviously, I’m rather ambivalent about this one…and I haven’t even mentioned what it’s about, since it’s popular enough in the blogosphere that I’ve assumed you all know! :) If you’re not a philosophy geek, and if you don’t mind endings that come out of left field, you should give this one a try! But I expected to fall in love, and instead I find myself uninterested in reading more of Barberry.
Um, ok, now I’m about to move from ambivalence to outright negativity (I promise, after this, I loved most of the books I read this week…so this post will become happy!). When I decided to get a few manga books from the library, I began to do a bit of online research about the genre, and Yoshiro Tatsumi kept coming up as a classic in the field. My library had his short story collection Goodbye, so I put it on hold and was genuinely excited about reading it. It was described as literary, thought-provoking manga, and I couldn’t wait to read it! Instead, I got some of the most strongly anti-women trash I’ve read all year. I hated this book. I know that’s strong language, but it’s true. I read it before I had intended to go to sleep, and it made me so upset that I ended up staying up for two more hours just to distract myself. The first story in the collection, about Hiroshima and with a film noir flavour to it, was actually good. It also had no women characters. The rest of the stories were full of women behaving in ways I’ve never seen and men behaving in ways I refuse to believe are typical. Each story simply got worse and worse, but I hung in there in case there was a literary merit beneath the apparently misogynistic surface, until finally the last and titular story “Goodbye” made me want to explode with rage. All of Tatsumi’s characters feel like cardboard cutouts, but the way he treats his female characters is worse, in that they’re always objects, more specifically sexual objects. While the men are oddly obsessed with sex, and just horribly depressing people in general who seem to have no principles, at least the stories are told from their points of view. They’re subjects. But to see women so objectified, and especially since there are illustrations (which made it worse for me, somehow), just angered me. And I’m sure someone will tell me that Tatsumi’s point was to break taboos and that his willingness to look at the ‘darker side of human nature’ is brave. But I found it prurient, and far from being some kind of unflinchingly honest look at the realities of human nature, it just felt like the personal projections of a sexual neurotic. It was like reading Freud, actually. Insulting to women, unrelentingly negative compared to my experiences with actual people, and left me wanting a hot shower to scrub myself clean again.
Whew. I’m glad that’s over…I considered simply not reviewing it, but it would have haunted me. I actually considered not even putting it on my ‘books read’ page, and trying to forget I’d ever read it. Anyway, I’m happy to report that I loved the next book I finished: The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie. I read this for the World Citizen Challenge, as a history selection. While I have a decent knowledge of contemporary Peru, I knew nothing about its ancient past. Before this, all I knew about the Incas were that they built Macchu Pichu, that they had llamas, and that the Spanish destroyed them. Now, I know all sorts of fascinating stuff! The story is bookended with chapters on twentieth century Western explorers searching for Incan ruins, but the bulk of the narrative opens with the Spanish arriving in Peru, then looks backwards at both the main conquistadors and the history of the Incan empire. After that background information, the bulk of the book details the years during which the Spanish conquered the Incas and subdued Peru and Chile (yep-did y’all know how vast Incan terrotiry was?!) into colonies. MacQuarrie most impressed with me with his balanced treatment of both sides; he doesn’t fall into the whole ‘Noble Savage’ trap when evaluating the Inca, but neither does he try to gloss over the Spanish atrocities. He’s also really good at narrative history; the book is obviously well-researched with over one hundred pages of endnotes, bibliography, and index, but it never feels dry. On the contrary, MacQuarrie’s writing kept me reading, his chapter breaks are perfect, and I never felt bored. At first, I was nervous about starting a longer nonfiction read this close to the end of the year, but soon I was happy knowing that I had so many more chapters left! After finishing it, I was sad to discover that this is MacQuarrie’s only book; I would happily read anything else he published. That’s how good this book is, and I’m not naturally overly interested in ancient history. ;) I think this would make a great gift for guys who enjoy military history, since the bulk of the book is about the Spanish compaign to subdue the country and the Incan response, which eventually centered around a guerilla movement. The one quibble I had with the book is that women are rarely mentioned, and MacQuarry sometimes uses euphemisms, like calling Incan princesses ‘mistresses’ of the conquistadors, when I think ‘rape victim’ would be more appropriate. But honestly, that’s a very minor complaint, and I can’t imagine there is much documentation of what life was like for Incan women, since they didn’t write in the same sense that we do. So even if you’re only vaguely curious about the Incans or the history of the ‘New World,’ I highly recommend checking this out; MacQuarrie makes the material so fascinating, I bet you’ll become caught up in the story before you know it!
I chose Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife for part of the Science Book Challenge, since I find mathematical philosophy really interesting. And when Seife is actually talking about mathematics, he’s good. Unfortunately, this book was way too scattered for me to enjoy, and I often found myself questing Seife’s credentials. Why? Well, in addition to math, he ventures into history and cultural analysis that feels incredibly iffy and stereotypical to me (and he also talks repeatedly about the ‘Dark Ages,’ which tends to raise my hackles). And then the last few chapters are devoted to a really basic look at relativity and string theory, which having read other books about physics, I found boring. The actual chapters about zero and how it transformed mathematics were thought-provoking, but those chapters were all too rare. I can’t say that I’d recommend this one.
I have rather mixed feelings about my next read, which was for the China Challenge: Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. It’s the first in a mystery series set in 1991 Shanghai, and there was much about the book that I simply loved. Xiaolong drew the setting wonderfully; I felt like I was walking along the streets of Shanghai with the characters, and whenever they stopped to get some street food I would start salivating. ;) I enjoyed seeing how Chinese Communist politics worked, and I liked how Xiaolong wove contemporary Chinese history into the story. I imagine even if I didn’t know anything about Mao, Xiaolong provides enough background knowledge to keep me in the loop. The main character, Chief Inspector Chen, is neat too; he’s also a poet and a lover of literature (which reminded me a bit of James’ Dalgliesh, one of my very favourite mystery series), and he’s devoted to getting justice for murder victims. So why do I have mixed feelings? Quite simply, there’s a lot of sexism going on. There were frequent passages about devoted wives, lamentations about a single woman’s loss of her true happiness (i.e.: spending her life taking loving care of her husband and child), etc. that made me annoyed with both Chen (who expressed these thoughts) and Xiaolong himself. Here’s a typical passage of what I’m talking about:
Guan could have married Engineer Lai, or somebody else. An ordinary housewife, bargaining over a handful of green onions in the good market, searching through her husband’s poclets in the morning, fighting for stove space in the common kitchen area…But alive, like everyboday else, not too good, and not too bad. But politicals had made such a personal life impossible. With all the honors heaped on her, an ordinary man was out of the question for her, not enough for her status and ambition. There was no way she could step down from the stage to pick up a man at a bus stop, or to flirt with a stranger in a cafe. On the other hand, what man would really desire a Party member wife delivering political lectures at home-even in bed?
In Tokyo, in a floating skilk kimono, kneeling on a mat, and warming a cup of sake for her husband, she would make a wonderful wife.
So yeah. This wasn’t a whodunnit type of mystery, more of a procedural and political mystery, which I thought Xiaolong handled well. Still, I’m not sure if I’m interested in reading more of the series…as much as I loved seeing Shanghai through Chen’s eyes, I disliked his meditations on my gender. Recommended if you love learning about new cultures and can overlook ridiculous sentiments like the ones I quoted above. ;)
I decided to reread Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw when I saw it available as an audiobook download from my library. I’m a huge fan of James’ novels, but I haven’t had as much luck with his shorter fiction…both Daisy Miller and this one disappointed me the first time around. I’m thinking this might be due to expectations, though, since a reread left me rather impressed by The Turn of the Screw. I read this for the first time in 2007, and I didn’t review it on the blog. But I do remember that I had expected it to be a creepy ghost story, and instead found myself a bit bored. Of course, this is most famous for its ambiguity; told by a governess who proves herself quite the unreliable narrator, it’s never made clear whether there are actually ghosts or if the governess is simply going insane. I’m not sure if listening to it made the difference, or if it was simply that I didn’t expect scary ghosts, but I spent most of the time in awe of James’ skill. He ratchets up the governess’ hysteria slowly but surely, and listening to it, all I kept thinking was “She is totally cracked! Get her away from the children!” lol While I didn’t love it the way I did Portrait of a Lady (my other James read this year and also an audiobook), I did very much enjoy it. I’m always happy when I reread a book that underwhelmed me the first time and end up with a lot more appreciation for it, so I’m pleased to report that’s exactly what happened. I think it’d be fun to read this one with Susan Hill’s modern pastiche The Woman in Black.
Now for those incredible books I finished last night! :)
First, there’s Sugar by Bernice McFadden, which is coming up on its tenth anniversary next month. It’s set in the 50s in small-town Arkansas, and tells the story of Sugar, a prostitute who returns after years spent in big cities to her tiny birth town. McFadden manages to combine brutal honesty with utter compassion in her storytelling, and the result blew me away. There was a lot of potential for stereotype here, with Sugar as the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ or Pearl her neighbour as the older Baptist woman determined to bring Christ into her life. But McFadden never even gets close to that; Sugar and Pearl both simply are individuals, and the book feels so genuine. I connected with it from the powerful opening:
Jude was dead.
On a day when the air held a promise of summer and people laughed aloud, putting aside for a brief moment their condition, color and where they ranked among humanity, Jude, dangling on the end of childhood and reaching out toward womanhood, should have been giggling with others her age among the sassafras or dipping her bare feet in Hodges Lake and shivering against the winter chill it still clutched. Instead she was dead.
This was McFaddens’ debut, and I can’t wait to read the rest of her novels! I highly recommend Sugar to anyone who loves good storytelling, heartfelt characters, or Southern stories.
After whining about my ILL request taking forever to be processed, Song for Night by Chis Abani did arrive at my library in time for me to finish up the What’s in a Name? 2 Challenge. This is a slim book by a Nigerian author narrated by a child soldier, and based on that I didn’t really want to read it. But I couldn’t find another book written by an African author with a ‘time of day’ in the title. So I opened it up with more than a hint of trepidation. And I immediately became lost in Abani’s words. It’s impossible for me to talk about this book without resorting to cliches…lyrical, haunting, mesmerising, exquisite…these are all the words that come to mind. At times, the prose was so beautiful I actually caught my breath. At only 160 pages, including 20 pages of introduction, this can be read in one long sitting. But it’s the kind of book that stays with you long afterwards, and the kind that makes you pause and reread a paragraph just to savour it. It’s the kind of book that’s a reader’s dream. Yes, it’s narrated by a child soldier. And yes, sad things are discussed. But really, the book is about identity and memories and survival and language and love. It’s got a bit of the fable in it, with a tone that gets dreamier as the book progresses. But at the same time, the narrator has a completely distinct voice and personality; he’s not simply a tool. I can’t figure out how to convince you all to read Song for Night, but you should. I am so grateful to the coincidence that led me to read this book, and I plan to read more Abani in the near future. And to resort to more cliches, I sighed when I read the last page, and it was all so perfect I was tempted to go back to the first page and read it all over again straight away. This book is an exquisite jewel, and Abani is a master writer.
Finally, I finished another Spice of Life read Hunger: an Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell. I’m excited to find that Russell has other nonfiction books, because I’ll definitely be reading them! I picked up Hunger after Rebecca’s review back in March, and I must say that I loved this one. Russell looks at everything from the science of what our bodies do in response to hunger to religious and medical fasting to hunger strikes to anorexia to the effects on society of mass starvation to twentieth century efforts to aid during famines. I will say that two chapters had me sobbing: “The Hunger Disease Studies” which is about the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and “Hungry Children” whose title makes it obvious why I would cry. But much of the book is more of the ‘isn’t this fascinating?’ variety than the ‘wow-how depressing’ and Russell ends with positive notes. She’s a wonderful writer, and she seems to unite a wide disparity of facts and stories with ease. I really enjoyed reading this one, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for good nonfiction.
There you go! I know that a lot of you get super-busy during the holidays, so I’m curious: do you find yourself reading more or less during Winter Holidays? As I mentioned earlier, I’m in the more camp…but I also don’t have a husband or kids to distract me. ;)