Winter Book List

by | January 25, 2011
filed under Books, Feminism, Politics

Here’s what I’ve been reading since my last book update.

Non-Fiction

1. Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L. Pozner

One of the best feminist book releases of last year, Reality Bites Back is an enlightening look at reality TV – its stereotypes, hidden messages, behind-the-scenes corporate funding, and impact on our society. Most interesting for me was the deconstruction of the myth that trashy reality TV exists simply to meet audience demand (Pozner argues it’s more to do with its ability to be produced cheaply and make profit through subtle and not-so-subtle product placement). Whether you love or love to hate reality TV, Pozner’s analysis is full of interesting facts and great strategies for how to watch these shows with a more critical eye. I also recommend you check out the Reality Bites Back Youtube Channel for a great series of videos called “Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn”, released to coincide with the book, that take a look at the common reality TV racial and gender stereotypes.

2. Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

Now, I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone who’s not into musical theatre, but if you’re a Broadway geek like me, this is a must-read. This first part of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics takes us from 1954-1981 and includes all the lyrics (including a bunch of cut and altered songs) from all his shows, including Gypsy, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music. The most interesting part for me was Sondheim’ s introduction, which lays out his philosophies about being a lyricist. The most entertaining parts are Sondheim’s profiles of famous deceased Broadway lyricists, many of which are filled with a fair amount of snark (he’s particularly disdainful of Noel Coward).

3. Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

Don’t Think of an Elephant is a concise and vital handbook for progressive political activists. In it, Linguist George Lakoff looks at how to reframe the political debate to advance a progressive political agenda. Lakoff helps progressives to understand why people sometimes vote against what we might see as their own best interests, and argues for a return to arguing on broad values rather than policy specifics. As someone who’s worked on and observed my share of election campaigns, the examples he cites of where left-wing communications fall flat resonated with me. Although the examples he uses are all US-based, the book is also accessible and relevant to Canadians on the left.

4. Game Change by Mark Halperin & John Heilemann

Perhaps the most talked-about political book of 2010, Game Change is an absorbing and titilatting, although pretty ridiculous chronicle of the 2008 US election. Through countless interviews with campaign insiders, Halperin and Heilemann claim they’ve been able to reconstruct key behind-the-scenes conversations of the Clinton, Obama, and McCain campaigns. The results are scandalous and set journalists and pundits speculating on their accuracy for weeks. The Globe and Mail’s Judith Timson complained about the sexist way in which Hillary, Sarah Palin, Cindy McCain, and Elizabeth Edwards were stereotyped in the book, and she’s right. But even the men in Game Change are a bit stereotyped. The whole thing is heavily editorialized to help readers visualize scenes and it reads more like a romance novel than journalism. That said, it was highly entertaining and I’d recommend it for political junkies who are able to take the whole thing with a grain of salt.

5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I devoured this book and I’d have to say it’s the most engrossing non-fiction book I’ve read in quite some time. Skloot’s book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman tobacco farmer who was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. Without her knowledge or consent, scientists took a sample of her tumour cells that ended up producing an immortal line of cells still growing today. “HeLa” cells, as they’re known by scientists, were crucial in developing the polio vaccine, in researching the effects of the atom bomb, mapping genes, and numerous other scientific advances. Skloot’s book discusses the medical history – including the history of medical experimentation on African-Americans, the history of the Lacks family, Henrietta’s life, and the medical and scientific ethics around tissue rights. Perhaps most importantly, she looks at the sometimes tragic impact the HeLa research had on Lacks’ family, who didn’t learn about the cells until 20 years after Lacks’ death, when they began to be engaged in research by scientists without informed consent.

Fiction

6. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Ever since my roommate and I got really into the Pillars of the Earth miniseries last fall, I’d been intending to read it, mainly to see if the book had as much feminist content as the adaptation. In case you don’t know the premise, Pillars is an historical epic that spans the decades it takes to build a new cathedral for the priory of Kingsbridge. Admittedly, it’s probably the 2nd-trashiest book I read in the last few months (after Game Change), but it was a real page-turner until the last few chapters, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel when my roommate’s done with it. In answer to the question about whether it was as feminist as the miniseries, I’d say it wasn’t, but only because I think Ken Follett overdid it with the description of William Hamleigh’s rapes. I also think the characters of Ellen and Aliena came across as more powerful in the show.

7. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

A cute book my friend Tannis picked up for me when I was looking for some light holiday reading. I wasn’t too into the book at first because, having been the same age as Adrian Mole when my parents separated, I found it really hard to believe he could be so oblivious to his parents’ marital troubles. But the book really grew on me and by the end I was laughing out loud at Adrian’s ridiculous predicaments.

8. Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book has been sitting on my shelf since 2006, and when the movie finally came out a few months ago I decided maybe I should get around to reading it. Never Let me Go is a dystopia about cloning for organ harvesting, set in Britain not too far in the future. It revolves around the lives of three children being raised for their organs. While the book is touching, I didn’t find it as thought-provoking as the other dystopian novels I’ve read. For one, I didn’t feel like I ever got a satisfactory explanation for what caused the society to become that way, other than a vague reference to people becoming unwilling to accept that diseases like cancer were uncurable. The second thing that bothered me was that I didn’t understand why the main characters, once they realized what was going on and wanted to get out, didn’t try to escape. The main character had a car; was there nowhere to go? Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but I just couldn’t buy into it as a viable near future scenario without more explanation.

-Jarrah


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  • http://marvelist.wordpress.com/ Roxanna Bennett

    Of the list I have only read ‘Never Let Me Go’; Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favourite writers.
    I think that the characters, having been raised as they were, to believe they were special and that what they were created for was very important, weren’t fully cognizant of their own ability to escape their fate. Being as secluded as they were it seemed that even when they became adults they moved only in the world of others like themselves and had little to do with ‘normal’ society. I think the point of the story was that resignation, the impossibility of any other outcome. I’m not sure that I believe that scenario is entirely realistic but I did believe in the emotional lives of the characters, and I did believe that those particular people would make those choices.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Fair enough. I definitely see how their “specialness” could explain their resignation. I guess I’m just a fan of more of the Atwood-type dystopias, where some of the characters are fighting the autocratic/corporatized/unethical social foces.

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