Fall/Winter 2012 Books – Non-Fiction

by | January 3, 2013
filed under Books, Can-Con, Pop Culture

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.


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.

I definitely appreciated Brent Hartinger’s article on the “role of freaks and outcasts” in the series. Hartinger argues, I think fairly, that Martin has created a significant number of underdog characters who “violate major gender or social norms” and are not stereotyped (examples include Tyrion, Aria, Jon, Bran, Samwell, Brienne, and Catelyn). I thought it was interesting how Hartinger draws a distinction between these outsiders and the more traditional fantasy outsiders like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter who are (usually white) men called to greatness.

Specifically referencing the violence against women in the books, Hartinger presents both the argument that the violence is too overwhelming as well as the counterargument that Martin is using the scale of the violence to show women as “the ultimate outsiders”.

I do find the omnipresent rape too overwhelming and I think there are instances (such as a scene in Book 2 where the audience is led to believe Asha is being raped before finding out it’s consensual) where it’s indefensible. But the reason I keep coming back to the show and the books and the debate is because I do love those complex outsider characters that are so difficult to find elsewhere.

The other panelist at GGC was Caroline Spector, whose Beyond the Wall¬†article is called “Power and Feminism in Westeros”. As in the panel, Spector makes the case that the challenges and violence the women characters in GoT experience are part of Martin’s attempt to show the hypocrisy of Westeros culture and the breakdown of social order. Spector goes through some of the notable women characters to talk about how they gain and lose power through the novels. She concludes:

“In the midst of what appears to be a traditional male-power fantasy about war and politics, he serves up a grim, realistic, and harrowing depiction of what happens when women aren’t fully empowered in a society. In doing so…Martin has created a subversively feminist tale.”

I can’t say I agree on that point. I appreciate the nuanced women characters in GoT but I think if there is that bigger social feminist meaning intended by Martin, it probably goes over the heads of most of the readers, and when it comes right down to it I think the way an audience understands the work is as or more important than the author’s original intent.

However, the fact that the series is still unfinished means Spector may end up being proved right. As Lowder points out in his intro to the collection, it’s difficult to do a full analysis when there are still books to be written and published.

In terms of the rest of the collection, there were some other really interesting takes, including an analysis of how Martin’s novels reflect Romanticism and a piece on Martin’s very careful use of magical and supernatural elements in the books. Less interesting to me were the pop-psychology articles analyzing the GoT characters and whether or not they could be said to have PTSD (Theon and Arya) or sociopathy (Littlefinger).

The other piece directly relating to violence against women came from Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress and The Atlantic. Rosenberg tends to agree with Spector that the violence serves a larger purpose to denote “monsters” among the characters as well as corruption and breakdown in social structures in certain regions and classes. However, Rosenberg acknowledges that some readers may find the number of assaults depicted to be “an insurmountable barrier to enjoying the books or the show”

Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America’s Prison Nation¬†by Beth Ritchie

Richie’s proposed framework for looking at violence against black women in context (with household, community, and state aspects and all part of the rise of the “prison nation”) is an important tool for feminists working on violence issues. Richie combines statistics and academic analysis with lots of real-life examples of black women who experienced different kinds of violence and fell through the cracks of both the justice system and the largely white feminist movement against violence against women.

200px-Cover_womanwarriorNot Totally Fiction or Non-Fiction:

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

I’d had this book on my to-read list since 2011, when it was one of the picks for Feminist Classics Book Club, and I had no idea what to expect. The book is hard to categorize, being a mixture of memoir, folktales, and creative imaginings. At the heart is Maxine Hong Kingston’s struggle to define herself and to reconcile her identity with her Chinese family history and her experiences growing up in America in the 1950s-70s. The “ghosts” in the title refers to actual spirits, Kingston’s ancestors, and non-Chinese people in America.

From a feminist perspective, Kingston’s stories are intriguing. She grapples with and rebels against the ways women have been devalued in Chinese society, vowing that she will not let her family “sell” her off to a husband. And Kingston also tries to reclaim the lost stories of Chinese women such as her aunt, who was driven to suicide for committing adultery. But she also exalts the strength of Chinese women like her mother, who became a doctor and was revered in her village before coming to America. She retells the legend of Fa Mu Lan and draws strength from her legacy.

In the end, the book is an emotional, creative journey that combines past and present (to the 1970s), real and imaginary, child and adult, America and China.


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