In addition to the informal Gender Focus book club reading and the occasional monthly read for Feminist Classics Book Club, I’m still doing a bunch of other reading so, without further ado, here are some super brief reviews on the books I’ve been reading over the past few months.
1. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins.
I’d bought this book when it first came out, being a big fan of Collins’ New York Times columns, but I’d put off reading it after reading Collins’ subsequent open letter to young american women, which basically laid the decline of popular feminism at the feet of young women. I argued it was insulting to young feminists and showed a complete lack of accountability for any problems in the second wave feminist movement.
Eventually I came back to the book, having just read Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry. While Traister’s book focused on the 2008 Presidential campaign, it alluded to the history of the women’s movement Collins’ book discussed. Traister’s book also did a great job talking about the divides in the present-day feminist movement due to race, class, and age. I was curious to see if Collins’ book could deal with any of these subjects with the same sensitivity.
It couldn’t. While Collins’ book went very in-depth describing the lives of everyday women from 1960 to now, she glossed over conflicts in the women’s movement and whitewashed its history. Her chapter on the civil rights movement seemed to focus more on the handful of white women who put themselves in danger for the cause than the black women and men who’d faced danger day after day just for being black.
When Everything Changed wasn’t a complete loss: the sections on the beginning of the movement for reproductive rights are informative, richly detailed, and inspiring. However, I think it’s biggest problem is reinforcing an idea of feminism as monolithic: white, straight, and middle-class, thereby limiting its potential in the present day.
2. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
I’d never read anything by any of the absurdly talented Foers, but this book was recommended by someone I met at a Tweetup and it sounded right up my alley. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer recounts his attempts to become a US Memory Champion and “mental athlete” through learning methods to memorize random numbers, shuffled decks of cards, poetry, and names and faces. Interspersed with the entertaining stories about his training and the unique people he encounters on the world memory circuit is a thoughtful discussion of the history of memory training, pedagogy, and the importance of memory in our society.
This book isn’t an instructional guide for people interested in memory sport, but Foer’s enthusiasm is infectious and it’s hard not to finish reading it and not try one of the techniques he touches on.
3. Room by Emma Donoghue
Room is one of the best novels I’ve read in a really long time and I’d probably even put it in my top 5 favourites. The story is told from the point-of-view of Jack, a little boy who lives in a room with Ma. For a book whose plot line could’ve come out of an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Room manages to be more a story of hope, love, and determination than just fear and disgust.
And it sticks with you. There were several points when I was reading it that I felt just shaken and thought I’d never be able to sleep normally again – not because it was frightening per se but just because the story was so involving. I can’t recommend Room enough.
4. World Without End by Ken Follett
So of course I had to follow up an awesome book like Room with a trashy paperback historical novel like this. World Without End is the sequel to Pillars of the Earth, which my roommate and I got into after watching the miniseries. WWE is set in a fictional priory in England during the black plague and while it maintained Pillars’ commitment to interesting, empowered women characters, the plot and character dynamics seemed formulaic. Also, Follett seems given to overly descriptive rape scenes, which definitely bother me, even if the rapists end up being punished at the end.
5. The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever by Cliff Atkinson
If you’ve found yourself giving or attending presentations since the advent of Twitter, you’d probably find this book useful to help break down how things are changing. The book provides concrete suggestions for making presentations more interactive, especially using social media tools. The graphics are a little corny but overall it’s a clear, concise handbook that I found especially helpful to rethink how I do presentations.
6. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
I’m a big fan of Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates so I was excited to come across Assassination Vacation, one of her older books, at the New Westminster library. In this book Vowell documents a road trip across the United States visiting sites associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield. Yet again Vowell proves she’s my kinda history geek: the kind that drags her friends and relatives out to seemingly insignificant monuments commemorating obscure historical happenings, and who spends time worrying about things like whether it’s wrong to find Lee Harvey Oswald attractive. Few people can combine history, social analysis, and personal reflection in a way that’s as interesting as Sarah Vowell.
7. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.
For the curious mind, but not for the weak stomach, Mary Roach’s book describes how human cadavers have been used throughout history, including looking at dissections, the use of corpses as crash-test dummies, and researching how corpses are used to study decay processes to solve crime.
One of the most interesting things she looks at is how we dispose of bodies now and why chemical breakdown and composting corpses still hasn’t caught on. This discussion looks at touchy areas around the distinction between body, mind, and soul. Roach’s tone is matter-of-fact so as long as you aren’t innately turned off by the thought of blood or death, I’d really recommend the read.