Sunday Salon: the ‘Beginning of the End’ Post
End of the year, that is! We’re in the home stretch of 2010 now, aren’t we? I’m eyeing my library stacks and current holds, wondering how many I’ll get to before the year’s end…I can’t lie, I’m hoping I’ll get through quite a few. I’ve gone through so many reading slumps this year, it’d be nice to finish with a bang! But I’m not going to beat myself up too much if that doesn’t happen. :) I’ve been reading up a storm this week, though, so let’s dive into talking about those books!
I picked up Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman at my last Friends of the Library sale in Colorado; the subtitle A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America caught my eye, and since it was $5/bag day I brought it on home! I loved this social history, especially the early chapters looking at the turn of the century and the transformation of America’s perceptions of “romantic friendship” among women to “lesbians” brought about by Freud’s dominance. Learning about the culture back then of girls who went to the elite women’s colleges of the day, and the various social reforms they went on to crusade for was wonderful. And I got to see some old friends, like Jane Addams (who I discovered when I read Twenty Years at Hull House in high school: such an inspiration)! Anyway, the later chapters were fascinating too, and Faderman has a strong style that alternates between personal stories and societal analysis that I really like in popular nonfiction. The book was published in 1991, so it doesn’t cover the entire twentieth century, and I must say that the final chapter on the 80s felt more personal than scholarly. Still, it was neat to enter into a time-machine, so to speak, and see what the expectations were for the following two decades now that they’ve been lived. The majority of the book looks at white lesbians, but Faderman does discuss the particular concerns of American lesbians of colour on occasion. I very much enjoyed reading this, and I feel like I learned a lot, so I’d highly recommend it if you enjoy social histories! If you’re well-versed on the historical US lesbian experience, though, you might not learn as much; I believe Faderman wrote it more as an introduction to the topic.
I already gushed over By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah, so let’s move on to Beyond the Blossoming Fields by Jun’ichi Watanbe. While this historical fiction book has just been published in English, it appeared in Japan in 1970, and tells the story of the real-life first woman doctor in Japan, Ginko Ogino. I found Ogino’s story fascinating and inspiring, from her original horrible experience with male gynecologists that created her ambition to her struggle to become credentialed and the social work she did as a doctor. But as a novel, Beyond the Blossoming Fields didn’t work for me. It was almost as Watanbe started off wanting to write a biography, but when he didn’t find enough information he decided to ‘fill in the blanks’ with his imagination. The story would veer from a look at Ogino’s personal thoughts to a factual passage detailing some event. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
Places in medical colleges were generally limited to the sons of well-known former samurai families ro those who had introductions from persons of note. Students ranged in age from under twenty to those in their forties, and may were rough characters who had fought in the recent upheaval of the Meiji Restoration. They were no longer permitted to carry their swords around, but the college atmosphere nevertheless tended to be that of a gathering of ruffians, all with chips on their shoulders.
And the fictional bits felt stilted…Ogino never came alive as a character. Funnily enough, I connected far more with some of the people who appear in her life, but I was regularly left hanging regarding what those people went on to do. I think if this was a biography, I would have loved it. As it is, the odd mix of nonfiction and fiction along with the stilted style and lack of real characterisation means I hesitate to recommend it. The ‘plot’ (aka Ogino’s life) is the only selling point to me; if you’re interested enough, it’ll be worth putting up with the book’s unevenness. But even that breaks down in the last few chapters, as Watanabe skips over the last years of Ogino’s life at a dizzying pace.
I’m saving my post about The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller for Narnia Week, but considering I’ve quoted from it twice this week, you might be able to guess what I thought about it. ;) So let’s move on to Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer. I read Zimmer’s Microcosm earlier this year and adored it. So when I saw he’d written a book about the discover of the brain, I fully expected to adore that one too. Unfortunately, I think the subtitle (The Discovery of the Brain and How it Changed the World) is misleading and set me up for some serious disappointment. The book is actually more a group biography, centered around several men who came together in Oxford during the mid to late 17th century to further science. They did ‘discover’ the brain, but it’s not until the last 50 pages that Zimmer actually weaves together the history and modern science; those final chapters were perfect, and what I had expected to find in the whole book. But instead, the rest of the 250 pages just didn’t appeal to me. I already have a decent grounding in the English Civil War and its causes, as well as the events that followed from it. I already know about Locke and Hobbes and their philosophy and mileau. So Zimmer’s general scene-setting passages went on too long for my tastes, resulting in my boredom. By the time he got to looking at the individual scientists, I was too bored to really connect with them. And there were far too many stomach-turning descriptions of various ‘experiments’ that involved the torturing of animals (primarily dogs); one of the reasons I did not want to study science in college was my concern over experiments on animals, and when I read about it in books it makes me sad and angry all at once. I know that last is a personal quirk, though! All in all, although most of this book just didn’t work for me, the last 50 pages completely redeemed Zimmer in my eyes. I still fully intend to explore his backlog; I’ll just try to stay away from the history-focused ones! I can see other readers really loving this one too, since Zimmer’s writing is as strong as ever (he’s marvelous at creating ‘word pictures’), so don’t be too scared off by what I’ve said. The book itself was good; its focus simply wasn’t right for me.
On to another Japanese novel. :) All She Was Worth by Mikyuki Miyabe was the first of her novels to be translated into English, and it was definitely a good place for me to begin! It’s a mystery novel I suppose, but more of a ‘crime’ novel or thriller than the classic whodunnits that I associate with the word ‘mystery.’ Tokyo Detective Shunsuke Honma is on leave recovering from being shot in the knee when his nephew comes to him asking for some ‘unofficial’ help finding his missing fiancée. For the first sixty pages, I was a little skeptical…I hadn’t quite connected with Shunsuke as a character, and I was afraid the novel would be too gritty for me. But then a new development occurred in the case, and suddenly I was fascinated! While I could see what the ending was likely to be, I enjoyed watching it play out, and was relieved by the lack of any gore or super-dark bits. Also, as I got to know Shunsuke better I began to care for him. He’s one of those thoughtful, honourable detectives who believes in ideals of justice and goodness, and his attempts at balancing work with being a single father were a refreshing change from the single mother plotline that seems more common in fiction these days. I definitely want to read more of Miyabe in the future! (I’m not sure if he’s written any other novels featuring Shunsuke, or if they’ve been translated into English, but I hope so.) That being said, there were a couple little issues with the book. The first is more one of translation: occasionally, one of the characters would say some very American, rather old-fashioned idiom that jolted me out of the book and had me wondering what tha Japanese really said. Here’s an example:
“How is she for looks?”
“Let’s just say you wouldn’t throw her out of bed for eating crackers. That’s what attracted the husband in the first place.”
Weird, right? And it wasn’t just one character, so I don’t think it was a deliberate quirk on Miyabe’s part that the translator was attempting to convey. The second thing was that part of the plot revolves around people getting themselves into consumer debt due to irresponsible credit companies. While this still felt relevent in today’s world (the book was originally written in the early 90s), at times it got a bit preachy. However, it was only one minor character who did the preaching, so it didn’t bother me too much! All in all, All She was Worth was a fun ride…nothing particularly groundbreaking, but I enjoy seeing familiar ideas/characters in new settings.
I also finished up Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel this week. While this falls into the same historical science/scientific history category as Soul Made Flesh, I had much better luck with it! I started listening to the audio version while painting my reading room, but I finished up with the print version this week that I happened to have on my shelves. I usually prefer reading nonfiction in print rather than audio, but in this case I think both worked equally well: the book had enough narrative to flow in audio, and Sobel was good enough at reminding me of various people/ideas that I never felt the urge to flip back and reread something earlier in the book. Anyway, this is a biography of Galileo structured around the letters he received from his daughter, a nun, throughout his life. I loved this approach, since it really humanised Galileo and kept the book interesting! The letters, many of which are included, are full of little details of life in 16th century Italy: as someone who enjoys peeking into the everyday aspects of history, I loved this. Really, Sobel brings all of the people she talks about to life…not in a fictional way, but rather by her strong writing and evident background. Obviously, she needs to provide quite a bit of context about the powerful figures in Galileo’s life (various pope, the Medicis, etc.), and she does this quite skilfully. I was never bored, although to be fair I don’t have much background knowledge of the period (what I have comes from studying Machiavelli’s The Prince in a college class), so most of what she talked about was new to me. Anyway, I’d highly recommend this: it’s smart, informative, charming, and left with me more knowledge of history and science than I had before. I definitely intend to read Sobel’s other works!
After loving Women With Big Eyes, I couldn’t wait to pick up Angeles Mastretta’s novel Lovesick. Fortunately for me, all of my expectations were met! I really think Mastretta writes fairy tales for adults. :) This is set during turn-of-the-century Mexico, and features a most unusual couple and their daughter, Emilia, who seems completely impervious to any social mores of the time. That’s what I mean by saying it’s a fairy tale: it’s not precisely magical realist so much as set among ideal people in an ideal almost-Mexico. But that’s not to imply that her characters don’t have flaws or feel real; indeed, I connected deeply with all of them and loved them despite of some occasional bad decisions. But while the evils of the Mexican civil war form the backdrop of the story, and the characters occasionally hurt each other (intentionally and not), they’re all fundamentally good people. When they lose their tempers, they apologise. When they love each other, they express it. It’s wonderful, and magical, to be in a place where love of all kinds is the most powerful force. Her writing style, which I fell in love with in Women with Big Eyes, also contributes to the fairy-tale feel of things. Here’s the book’s opening:
Diego Sauri was a native of a small island that still floats in the water of the Mexican Caribbean. An audacious and solitary island where the air is a challenge or profound and auspicious aromas.
I should say that the book doesn’t feel simplistic; Mastretta never shows emotions as black-and-white things, and she leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Nothing ends perfectly, or perhaps even expectedly, but when I turned the last page I couldn’t help but feel profound satisfaction. I believe Mastretta is well on her way to becoming one of my favourite authors, and one of my go-to for comfort reads! My only concern now is that while my library has several of her books available in Spanish (the language she writes in), only one more novel of hers awaits me in English…it looks like I have yet another reason to start studying Spanish! I highly recommend this for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, international fiction, and those who like books that deal with important human themes without feeling heavy. Or just those looking for a little bit of uplifting magic!
I also finished up Africa’s World War by Gerard Prunier, a book I began a couple of months ago but had to return to my old library about 250 pages in. This is an incredible scholarly work, the most complete analysis of the war that engulfed DPRC in the 90s that I can imagine, and I can easily see this being one of the texts a college course is structured around. I loved it, and I can’t wait to read more of Prunier’s works. That being said, it’s not written for a popular audience. There’s not any real attempt at writing ‘style’ (bullet points are often used); although I will say that as far as academic writing goes Prunier’s approach of short, direct sentences is a breath of fresh air. This isn’t a book you can skim: every sentence contains important information. There are also tons of acronyms thrown about and references to various IGOs, NGOs, capitals, etc. that Prunier obviously expects his reader to already be familiar with. But if you have a background in international relations, and especially if you have an interest in peacekeeping and nation building (the subject of my own honours thesis), I think you’ll love this as much as me. (I always find it difficult to review international relations books, since I approach them from an academic rather than reading perspective and don’t want to get into a long analysis of the author’s arguments on this blog, so I’m just going to leave it at that.)
And that has me almost caught up with the books I’ve read this month! I think I’ve given up on catching up with my backlog from the rest of the year…I would need to post twice a day to get through them all. It’s a little depressing, but I’m trying to just accept that I can only do my best. ;) I’m still contemplating the idea of two-sentence reviews, but I’m not sure if those are even particularly helpful! If you have suggestions for dealing with your own backlog, please let me know!
And now, I’m off to read some more and perhaps watch a couple episodes of Carnivale (I just rented season one from my library, and the check-out is only one week despite it being six dvds.) Hope everyone enjoys their Sunday! Also, I happened to read two nonfiction books this week dealing with ‘scientific history’ and two historical novels that featured women doctors as protagonists. If y’all have any suggestions for more books that fall into one of these ‘types’, let me know!