Reading Snapshot: December 19th
Yesterday, I noticed my muscles were feeling quite sore, and so I decided to devote today entirely to reading and, not so incidentally, sitting on supportive furniture wrapped in heating pads. I’m having a lovely time, like a little personal read-a-thon, and it feels like a much more cheerful way of thinking of the enforced stillness! I’m so in love with all of the books that I thought it’d be fun to share them here, even if it’s not a ‘scheduled’ posting day.
I began with nonfiction, as last night I finished rereading Stardust. I was about 90 pages into Here Be Dragons: the Scientific Quest for Extraterrestrial Life by David W. Koerner and Simon LeVay, but I noticed that each time I was ‘meant’ to pick it up, I’d find some excuse to go do something else instead. This is usually my queue to abandon the book, and so I did; I might pick it up again at a later date or I might not. It’s decently written, and I find the topic interesting, so I’d recommend it to others, but for now it’s been set aside. Instead, I first finished A.S. Byatt’s essay collection On Histories and Stories, as I only had 60 pages left in it (I usually read nonfiction in sections of about that length). I had enjoyed the entire book, but the final essays were the cream: first was one about European writers influenced by folk tales, which included several authors I’ve read and loved (Calvino, Dinesen, Calasso), a few more to explore, and for those who suspect Byatt of being too high brow for them, high praise for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, which I’ve been meaning to get into for years now but somehow never have (except for the Tiffany Aching books). After that, a stunning meditation on fairy tales featuring ice and glass, including cross-story comparisons, and a viewpoint that I hadn’t considered before but immediately resonated with, on whether it’s always a good thing for women to come down from their solitary, ice-bound glory and into the ordinary world of princes and kisses and babies. My summary makes it sound far more reductive than Byatt’s thoughts are; it’s one of those essays I think any feminist fairy tale lover will find worthwhile reading. And finally a neat closing piece on Scheherazade and The Thousand and One Nights, and its impact on European lit. This was my first experience with Byatt’s nonfiction, but as a long-time lover of her fiction (I discovered her when I was 16 and found my way to her Little Black Book of Stories), I’m not surprised that I loved it.
As I rotate between two nonfiction books at once, I then dove back into Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy by Vanessa Fong. This is a serious sociology study, published by a university press, but I think it’s very accessible to the general reading public too. Of course I’ve heard of China’s “little emperors,” but I hadn’t though much more about all of the ‘singletons,’ as Fong refers to them. She spent over two years observing teens in a large Chinese city and discovered that they’d been raised to believe they should have ‘First World’ consumer-driven lives, by parents willing to devote most of their resources to their only child, but with the expectation that the child would excel in school, then get a good job and support them in their own age (as the government had withdrawn state support for retirement, health care, etc., leaving the parents without many other possibilities). However, as more and more students get more degrees, and as China’s economy began to experience hiccups in the late 90s, an education inflation saw many more graduates than suitable jobs for them. This, along with the stress to perform well in exams, the tension of comparing their own lives, particularly their belongings, to ‘First Worlders,’ and more mean the singletons are far from pampered. There are a lot of parallels to draw between their lives and the typical US middle class child’s life, at least to my eye, and so the book is fascinating on multiple levels; I find the pages are simply flying by. Fong does a good job with her material, and is clearly aware of the dangers and shortcomings of sociological studies, providing an occasional reminder to the reader as well.
Since I abandoned Here Be Dragons, I had room in my nonfiction roster for another new entry, so I couldn’t resist treating myself to Medieval Women: a Social History Of Women In England 450-1500 by Henrietta Leyser. I love social histories, and those that focus on marginalised history, anyway, and my fascinating for the Middle Ages has only increased in the past few years, so I had high hopes of this. I’m only through the first part, but so far those hopes have been met entirely. Leyser takes neither a ‘dark ages’ interpretive approach nor an excessively rosy view and is always willing to acknowledge when the evidence is too sketchy for firm conclusions. I quite like her middle-of-the-road viewpoint, which keeps women as subjects instead of reducing them to helpless victim-objects, even while acknowledging the ramifications of patriarchy. And the peeks into Anglo-Saxon England, a place that feels so foreign, were fascinating. I imagine as we move more towards time (I believe the next part deals with the Norman Conquest), there will be more primary sources for Leyser to explore, but I’m already more than impressed & would happily recommend this to any history buff.
Having finished my nonfiction section of reading (I know it sounds terribly regimented, but somehow the approach that works best for me is to read a novel, followed by about 240 pages of nonfiction alternated between two books, then another novel), I found myself getting to choose yet another new book to begin, this time a novel. I decided to opt for an already loved author, so as not to break my excellent reading streak, and pulled Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela off the shelf. I’m only about fifty pages in, but I’m utterly entranced, as I’ve been in all of her books. She has such an excellent way of evoking places, bringing characters to life, and weaving interesting philosophical debates seamlessly into her fiction, I only hope that she has a long and prolific writing career ahead of her! I was pleased to find that this one is set in Sudan and also deals with Sudanese/Egyptian relations; I wrote a paper on the history of that once for college, but of course it was from a political science perspective instead of a personal one. So I’m looking forward to seeing it play out in a fictional context.
And with that, I better get back to my armchair & novel!