mary roach

Fall/Winter 2012 Books – Non-Fiction

otherworldsby Jarrah Hodge

I read A LOT the past few months: fiction and non, feminism/gender related and not so much. So even though the reviews are short and sweet, I’m going to break this up into two posts. If you’ve read any of the books on the list, let me know what you thought. If you’ve read something else good lately, comment below and maybe it’ll make it into my Spring 2013 book list post.

Non-Fiction:

In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

Overall, this is probably a book more for the Atwood fan than the SF fan who isn’t familiar with Atwood. The first part of In Other Worlds feels like you’re hanging out with Margaret Atwood drinking wine when starts to hit the point of having too much to drink and begins ramblingly postulating on science fiction, mostly focusing on her relationship with the genre. It was interesting but I thought told us more about Margaret Atwood than it did about “science fiction and the human imagination”. The best segment was Atwood’s musings on the interconnected relationship between dystopia and utopia, which provided an interesting framework to look at Atwood’s books as well as many other SF works.

I felt the second part of the book, in which Atwood shares her reflections on specific works such as Brave New World and the stories of Ursula K. LeGuin, was more interesting and insightful. Though I had expected more gender analysis throughout the book, Atwood does hit on it a bit in this section. For example she points out that most dystopias have been written by men and from a male point-of-view:

“I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia, as it were. However, this does not make The Handmaid’s Tale ‘a feminist dystopia,’ except insofar as giving a woman a voice and an inner life will always be considered ‘feminist’ by those who think women ought not to have those things.”

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

I’m a big fan of Mary Roach but I was disappointed by Spook. It lacked a coherent flow and despite the fact that the subject matter (scientific and not-so-scientific attempts to prove the existence of a soul and/or afterlife) was really interesting, the book itself actually managed to bore.

I also felt she tried way too hard to keep an open mind to some obviously-fringe “science”. While it made sense to reach out in good faith to cover these groups of “researchers” – such as the people who go into the wilderness to tape-record ghosts – it feels in her writing like she’s bending over backwards to say that while she didn’t experience any ghosts, maybe it was just her. I know she wasn’t aiming to write a scholarly book but in comparison just to her other books her research seemed spotty. I’m thinking no one who has a strong belief on the issue of the paranormal – believer or skeptic – comes away satisfied reading this.

beyondwallBeyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire edited by James Lowder

Beyond the Wall is a collection of essays looking at A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) from a variety of angles. Two of the essays I was particularly interested in reading came from writers who appeared on a 2012 Geek Girl Con panel on Game of Thrones. While I found the panel problematic in its explanations for the practically non-stop rape in the series, I thought it would be fairer to also read the panelists’ articles, especially because the time in the panel was short and the lack of a moderator may not have allowed the panelists to have a more nuanced discussion. Read more

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Winter Book List 2011

Artistic Impressions Book CoverHere’s what I’ve been reading over the past few months since the last book list post.

1. Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport by Mary Louise Adams

Queens University Kinesiologist Mary Louise Adams presents historical context and contemporary analysis of gender dynamics in figure skating. I recommend the book for skaters, skating fans or anyone interested in the gender dynamics of sport. I interviewed Adams on her book last month and you can find that post here.

2. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

If you’ve read past book lists here it’ll be no surprise that I snapped up a copy of Mary Roach’s latest book, Packing for Mars. Roach continues her exploration of scientific research, this time looking at research conducted around space travel. As usual, her book manages to give you a whole bunch of information on topics you probably never considered, like whether or not astronauts’ condom-like urine collection devices are vanity-sized (they are), the best way to have sex in space, or how the monkeys who traveled in space and have since died are memorialized. In addition to the urine collection devices, Packing for Mars mentions some other issues with space travel gender dynamics that made the read additionally interesting for me as a feminist blogger.

3. The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackberg

This was another unsurprising reading choice for me, since basically all my paperback reading is in the form of Swedish mystery novels. But I hadn’t tried Lackberg before, and I was glad I did. While I’ve written before about appreciating Swedish mystery writers like Henning Mankell and Ake Edwardson for writing main characters that challenge conventional detective novel masculinity, Lackberg’s book (3rd in a series) not only does this but leaves them in the dust in terms of creativity. Lackberg’s series is set in a small Swedish town and her narrative jumps between many of its residents, giving you a sense of the insularity of small town life and also giving several red-herrings for those of us trying to figure out who did it.

4. The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

After reading The Stone Cutter I decided to go back to the beginning of the series. In some ways I enjoyed The Ice Princess even more, since the majority of the book is from the point-of-view of Erica, a strong-willed writer who ends up dating Patrik, the detective who becomes the protagonist of The Stone Cutter. A subplot revolves around Erica helping her sister and sister’s children escape an abusive husband. Another little thing but one I really appreciated is that when Lackberg mentions Erica’s worried about her weight, she gives the weight at 73 kg (around 160 lbs). By my calculations that’s still healthy but it’s 50 lbs more than Bridget Jones is when she starts stressing in Bridget Jones’ Diary (my evaluation point for annoying dieting references in novels). More importantly, she’s described as confident and beautiful, despite subscribing to fairly realistic human proportions.

5. Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls is the product of years of research in China by former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie T. Chang. Though she spends a fair amount of time discussing her own family’s history in China, her main focus and purpose is to illuminate the experience of migrant women working in Chinese factories in Dongguan, a city in the Pearl River Delta. Through time spent with two driven and motivated young women, Min and Chunming, Chang helps us realize the labour that goes into the goods and gadgets we use every day. While Chang points out the widespread corruption and exploitative conditions many women work under in these factories, her book also helps to cast the women as not entirely victims of rural poverty and a dysfunctional global economy, showing instead a complex situation with push and pull factors including the desire to explore the world and break out of older rural ways of life.

6. Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim

I read the first part of Stephen Sondheim’s collected lyrics (“with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes”) about a year ago and eagerly awaited this second (planned to be concluding) volume. Like the first book, you won’t get much out of this unless you’re a fan of musical theatre or poetry/lyric writing. I found it difficult to make myself read through lyrics of shows I hadn’t seen, but I really enjoyed reading Sondheim’s sometimes cutting but always insightful views on theatre critics, awards, and Broadway culture.

7. The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

Clearly I went on a bit of a Lackberg kick over the holidays. This was book 2 and I won’t go much into it given that I’ve already outlined books 1 and 3. Suffice it to say it was also excellent and I found the ending surprising – always a good trait in a mystery.

8. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. A collection of essays, comics, poems, and narratives from “today’s transpeople, genderqueers, and other sex/gender radicals”, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a reminder of the diversity among and within trans/queer communities. Bornstein and Bergman have done an exceptional job putting together a collection that addresses lived experiences as well as the intersections of gender and sexual identity with family, class, race, and religion. I think it’d also be very helpful for people who want to better understand the lives of trans/queer people – the struggles they face and the ways in which they celebrate their identities and experiences.

-Jarrah

What did you read/have you been reading this winter?

 

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism, Pop Culture 3 Comments

Summer Book List 2011

It’s been almost 4 months since the spring book list and my reading has been piling up, so it’s time for another list of super-short book reviews. Got any suggestions for books I should be reading over the next 4 months? What have you been reading? Comment below!

1. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach.

Being a fan of weird science books, I read Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers earlier this year and was immediately interested in reading everything else she’d ever written. Bonk takes you through decades of bizarre experiments attempting to illuminate the science of orgasm, erection, lubrication, desire, and all other aspects of sex. Oddly enough, I found it made me more uncomfortable than reading Stiff, namely because it was more unnerving for me to think about penis surgery on live humans than it was anything happening to cadavers. But Roach treats the subject matter with her trademark candor and wit so I was able to unpack some of my own assumptions and come out smarter and more open-minded than before.

2. Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell.

Around the same time as my Mary Roach quest I also decided I had to catch up on the Sarah Vowell books I hadn’t read, since I loved The Wordy Shipmates and to a lesser extent, Assassination Vacation. Unfamiliar Fishes is Vowell’s latest book, which explores the history of Hawaii from the beginning of visits by Christian misisonaries to annexation by the US. As usual, Vowell helps us to see the violence and tragedy of colonization while also showing the nuanced histories and motivations of the colonized and colonizers. She also makes interesting linkages to the present-day war in Iraq and how the arguments used to justify Bush’s invasion were similar to those used during annexation of Hawaii.

3. The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell.

I checked off the second-last book on my Sarah Vowell list with The Partly Cloudy Patriot, which I unfortunately hadn’t realized was a collection of essays, not a longer historical narrative like her other books. I did enjoy it but prefer a more in-depth look at issues than she was able to give in her brief accounts of Presidential libraries, engaging youth in politics, 9/11, and parental Thanksgiving visits. If you like Vowell’s stuff and you’re looking for something more easily read in short sittings, this would probably be a good book, even though some of the subject matter around Clinton and the first Bush term feels a little dated.

4. Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid.

I was a little skeptical reading a book on comic book super-heroines and feminism written by a guy, but Mike Madrid did a pretty good job outlining the history and demonstrating how super-heroines still have a long way to go to reach comic book equality. It was especially great for someone like me who hasn’t read a lot of comic books but felt like she needed an historical and feminist overview in order to beef up her feminerd credentials and understand more about the genre. Madrid takes us through the history of comic book super-heroines both well known and obscure from the early days of Sheena: Queen of the Jungle to today’s incarnations of Wonder Woman and the women of the X-Men. I particularly liked  how he linked changes in super-heroine costume, style, and attitude to pop culture changes and historical events and trends. Read more

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Spring Book List 2011

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.

-Jarrah

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