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Fall 2010 Reads October 31, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, Politics, Pop Culture.
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1. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin. I would’ve liked to see more race analysis but Grandin does a good job telling the story of Henry Ford’s failed attempt to create a model midwestern city in the Amazon. Ford wasn’t a big fan of experts, so ended up making a lot of mistakes like building houses unsuited to the jungle climate, planting rubber with no idea of its environmental needs, and hiring staff that used company money on drunken escapades. The anecdotes are entertaining and it gives insight into the history of Ford and the rubber industry internationally.

2. Myths of Gender by Anne Fausto-Sterling. Fausto-Sterling wrote this book in 1985, although I read the second edition released in 1992. Even though it’s dated it provides a scientific basis to critique research on sex differences. Fausto-Sterling is a biologist who believes there are some innate biological differences between the sexes, but believes most of the scientific research on the subject to be flawed. In particular, she criticizes the belief that men are naturally smarter and better at math, the belief that men are naturally more aggressive due to hormones, and that menstruation and menopause are “diseases” that effect all women similarly. While researchers in many other disciplines have also tackled these issues it’s interesting to see someone fight science with science.

3. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up this book from a discount rack at Powell’s. Sarah Vowell’s history of the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony manages to be quirky, moving, funny, and thorough. She critiques a view of colonization that ignores the violence done to Aboriginal peoples and uses historical writings and modern politics to give us a thoughtful exploration of what it means to see America as a Puritan nation.

4. Manhood in America: A Cultural History by Michael Kimmel. Some feminist scholars argue we don’t need any more men’s history since mainstream historical research has always revolved around men. While Sociologist Michael Kimmel somewhat agrees with that statement, he sees that what’s been lacking is a history of masculinity. I highly recommend Manhood in America, in which Kimmel posits there have been different types of ideal masculinity struggling for prescience in the US since the American Revolution. Using histories of literature, psychoanalysis, politics, and health, he argues the type of the “self-made man”, who brings himself up from nothing to accumulate wealth and prestige, is the type to which modern men are expected to aspire. In the end he argues for a more “democratic masculinity” that does not base its identity on exclusion via homophobia or sexism. If you’re going to read any book on this list, make it this one.

5. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel. I was so excited to find another book by Kimmel after Manhood in America, but I was kind of let down by Guyland, which explores the lives of men aged 16 to 26 in America. Kimmel calls the territory these men inhabit “Guyland”: a social arena in which guys are forced to constantly prove themselves as men while being suspended between childish buddy culture and adult responsibilities. While I appreciated Kimmel’s arguments about the amount of gender policing, I’m not convinced that it’s unique to the age group he looked at. Further, a lot of the social pressures he discussed, such as guys feeling stuck and unable to forge a good career for themselves, I don’t believe are that gender-specific.

6. The Pyramid: The First Wallander Cases by Henning Mankell. On to fiction. The Pyramid is the last book in the Wallander series by Henning Mankell, but takes the reader back to Wallander’s life before the first novels. I’ve now read the entire series and while I enjoyed The Pyramid, the fact that it was broken into short stories made it more obviously formulaic. It made me realize I’m not sure if there’s a Wallander story where the finding of the body isn’t followed by a comment on the weather, along the lines of: “Wallander got into his car. The fog rolled off the embankment. It was four-oh-two in the morning on September 16.” (not an actual quote).

7. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. My step-sisters got me into Gary Shteyngart when they gave me his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, for Christmas a few years ago. Super Sad True Love Story has the same sense of wacky satire, this time looking at a world in which a technology-obsessed America is on the verge of economic collapse.  In the midst of the crisis is set the love story of anachronistic Lenny Abramov (he still reads paper books!) and the secretly vulnerable yet outwardly cruel Eunice Park. What I found interesting was how Shteyngart, consciously or not, visualized a hyper-objectification of (particularly) women as part of the increasing use of technology and obsession with youth and immortality.

That’s what I’ve been reading over the past few months. Next up is Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese. What are you reading?




My 2010 Summer Reads August 25, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Can-Con, feminism, Pop Culture.
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So the summer’s not really over yet (fingers crossed) but now that I’m back at work after surgery my ability to finish books quickly has decreased and I figured it was a good time to recap since my last book update. In the order I read them:

1. In Spite of Myself: Memoirs by Christopher Plummer

I’m not a big biography fan but I am a huge Shakespeare nerd and this book got great reviews, so I picked it up at the library. At 656 pages, it’s not something you can knock off in one sitting, but nevertheless it manages to be a page turner. It’s filled with fascinating anecdotes about his encounters with such notables as Oscar Peterson, William Shatner, Laurence Olivier, Julie Andrews, Maggie Smith, and many more. My favourite was a humourous recounting of a very hung-over production of Hamlet. The stories are engaging and the narrative flows, tied together with quotes from Shakespeare plays.

That said, Plummer played it very safe on the personal front with this book. The death of his mother merits less than a page, and while he takes time to admire his daughter Amanda’s talent, he barely mentions feelings for her or any of the girlfriends and ex-wives he mentions. So if you’re looking to gain insight into Christopher Plummer’s feelings, you’re looking in the wrong place. But do read this book if you’re interested in the history of Shakespearean theatre in North America, the theatre scene in Montreal and New York in the 1950s and 1960s, and the behind-the-scenes experiences of one of Canada’s greatest actors.

2. The Known World by Edward P. Jones

This focuses on free blacks who owned blacks in the pre-abolition South, telling the story of a plantation run by free black Henry Townsend. At times I thought the writing felt stilted, but the historical insight and depth of character made it worth the read.

3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I won’t spend too much time dissecting such a classic but it was an amazing book. I was also really struck by the gender dynamics and the recognition of the importance of women holding together families in the Great Depression. East of Eden is next on my Steinbeck reading list.

4. The Gathering by Anne Enright

I seemed to have a thing for novels about families this summer, the more dysfunctional the better. The Gathering looks at the Hegartys from the point-of-view of Veronica, whose brother Liam has just died. The writing is flowing but not flowery. Reading it felt like slowly drinking a glass of water. The only thing that prevented me from really enjoying it was the prevailing sense that women are meant to be long-suffering martyrs, especially relating to Veronica’s mother and Veronica’s relationship with her husband.

5. Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

If I had to pick my favourite out of the list, this would be it. My dad recommended Kate Atkinson but I didn’t really know what to expect. And any synopsis of this novel won’t do it justice. It’s the story of a family through three generations, two world wars, and various personal tragedies, but the writing style is so unique, engaging, and often funny that it’s tough to put down. Women suffer a lot in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, too, but they aren’t victims. I’d highly recommend this book and am looking forward to reading When Will There Be Good News? next.

6. The History of Psychiatry by Edward Shorter

 I picked up this book after seeing Shorter quoted in the Vancouver Sun on the issue of adding new disorders to the DSM. Right from the start I was put on the defensive as Shorter approaches his history very strongly from the biological standpoint of mental illness, dismissing the Foucauldian notion of mental illness as socially constructed as nonsense with no historical basis. Shorter raises some good examples and while he claims to be right, he doesn’t claim to be objective, frequently declaring his standpoint. I appreciated that aspect and the thoroughness with which Shorter documented changing treatments in the United States and Europe. That said, even though I think Shorter shortchanged the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate, the thing that bothered me most was how little patients factored into his analysis. He goes on at length about various psychiatrists throughout history and even tries to vindicate ones he feels have acquired unfair reputations (not Freud, whom Shorter spends a whole chapter debunking). But rarely does he seem to think the perspectives of patients relevant. Overall it’s a book with a lot of interesting information but it deserves to be taken with a grain of salt.

7. Garbo Laughs, by Elizabeth Hay*

This one gets an asterisk because I didn’t actually finish it. I loved Hay’s Late Nights on Air but couldn’t really get into Garbo Laughs. There were a couple really nice moments but overall I felt like I was watching a bunch of cinemaphiles endlessly debate whether or not Marlon Brando is better than Frank Sinatra. It was interesting for a while but I felt like the book didn’t give me a reason to care about those types of debates.


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Spring Book List 2010 May 25, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Can-Con, feminism, Politics, Pop Culture, Random.
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Here is the list of books I’ve read this spring, along with mini-reviews of approximately 2 sentences each.

Books from my “I should really read that” list:

  • Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’d read North and South and last year tackled Wives and Daughters but hadn’t been able to really get into Cranford, which is a series of  vignettes of small-town life, originally published as a serial.  But when I found a lovely 1912 edition at the thrift store I decided to give it another go and was really glad I did: the stories are lively and engaging and the characters fascinating. You could almost imagine that you, as the reader, were sojourning in Cranford just like the narrator. And for the record, the miniseries with Judi Dench is the best BBC costume drama I’ve ever seen.
  • Slaughterhouse Five. I picked this book up at one of my favourite places in the whole world: The Strand bookstore in Manhattan. I read it on the train to Washington, DC, and it was  a quick read, but one of those books that really stays with you and demands that you contemplate it.
  • Five Major Plays by Oscar Wilde. This collection included two plays I’d already read: Earnest and An Ideal Husband, as well as 3 I hadn’t: A Woman of No Importance, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and Salome. The first 4 plays are funny, quick reads, but Salome is much darker and has some really interesting gender dynamics that I think will require more reflection on my part.

Light Reading

I’m practically an expert on Swedish mystery novels now that I’ve made it through all of Håkan Nesser’s books, most of Henning Mankell’s, and now all but one of Åke Edwardson’s Inspector Winter novels.

  • During my New York trip I devoured 2 of Edwardson’s novels: Death Angels and Never End. While Inspector Winter came across as slightly less of a feminist hero than in Frozen Tracks, which I read last year, they had the same balance between thoughtfulness and suspense that drew me to Edwardson’s work in the first place.
  • He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. This book by Feministing founder Jessica Valenti isn’t for those looking for an in-depth discussion of feminist theory, but it’s a fun and accessible volume designed to be used as a tool for young feminists to recognize and help others recognize the sexist double standards that exist in our society. Each mini-chapter also has an action item, which is hugely useful. For example on the “He’s a politician, she’s a fashion-plate” double-standard that sees women politicians judged more on their looks than men, Valenti suggests writing letters to the editor, encouraging friends to run for office, and looking into organizations that promote women’s leadership.
  • This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians can Save us all by Marilyn Johnson. If you want a low-stress read and you happen to be a library nerd, check out this book. Full of stories of librarians of all kinds, including some really neat tales about librarian bloggers, Johnson’s book is a heart-warming testament to the continuing importance of libraries and public access to information, even in tough economic times and during an age of increasing computerization.

Random Other Reads

  • Solar by Ian McEwan. I went to McEwan’s reading of this book in Vancouver, hosted by the Vancouver International Writers Festival, and found McEwan highly entertaining, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.  Unfortunately, despite my love for some of his other books (notably Saturday and Amsterdam) I actually almost didn’t finish Solar. While the premise – a gluttonous and libidinous Nobel-prize-winning Physicist personifying man’s worst traits working on climate change issues – was smart and funny, the novel’s pace really slowed almost to a stand-still later on and really made reading it feel like a chore.
  • Swann by Carol Shields. I’m a huge Carol Shields fan and was lucky enough to get a postcard from her in response to a letter I wrote her in grade 12, only months before she died. But I hadn’t gotten around to reading Swann, the tale of a mysterious rural Ontario woman poet and how her story becomes re-defined by the people whose lives her poetry influenced. I’d definitely put this on my favourite books list – it has a similar combination of satire and sentiment to The Stone Diaries with the added element of mystery that makes it a genuine page-turner.
  • Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon. I mentioned this book while I was reading it, so I won’t go too much in-depth. Suffice it to say this was a fascinating biography about Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange’s life, art, and politics and it was hugely engaging from a feminist and progressive political perspective.
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I really enjoyed this alternative-timeline novel about a hard-boiled detective solving a murder in a Jewish community in Alaska on the eve of its dissolution. Chabon’s turn of phrase is highly unique, almost quirky, and it makes you feel like you’ve actually met Meyer Landsman and stayed the night in his dingy hotel room.

Now I’m digging into The Family by Jeff Sharlet and In Spite of Myself, memoirs by Christopher Plummer, but I’m having back surgery in June and will be off work for 1-2 weeks, so if anyone has any recommendations for that time, post them in the comments below!

P.S. If you’ve read this far you’ll probably like Bookshelf Porn (don’t worry; it’s definitely safe for work).


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