Tag Archives: non-fiction

2018 Reads in Review

A quick recap of the books I read in 2018, with comments sprinkled throughout. (Some) fuller reviews can be found on Goodreads.

First US edition cover of Pnin by Nabokov

My favorite novel of the year. Read it twice. (picture of first US edition)

  1. To Save Everything Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
  2. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  3. Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical by Jacqueline Jones (so rare to find a new biography on an American anarchist, especially on one so under-biographized as Parsons. I only wish I learned more about her, especially about her thoughts about race and passing)
  4. Know Your Place by Nathan Connolly (a book that asks 24 working class writers to answer the question, ‘In 21st century Britain, what does it mean to be working class?’)
  5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (read again in honor of getting a first edition)
  6. Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan (takes place before Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I am a sucker for books about bookstores, libraries, and secret societies of bibliophiles)
  7. Meno by Plato
  8. One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality by Jeremy Waldron
  9. Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman (eye opening)
  10. The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber (If you like all the Netflix shows on chefs and food, you’ll love this)
  11. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (I scour book award lists for new reading recommendations. Little reveals my dilettante nature more than the fact that I hadn’t heard of Saunders before stumbling upon Lincoln in the Bardo [it won the 2017 Man Booker Prize]. Two things to say. First, people say the writing here is ‘experimental’ but I did not have that thought at all while reading it. You do not have to be highfalutin to experience the elegiac beauty of this book. As for its formal qualities and purported experimentalism, my thought while reading it was something like this: ‘instead of getting a description of a thing directly, or of a thing itself, it feels more like this author provides us with descriptions of the spaces, shadings, and shadows that surround the object. We are then left to – and trusted to – hold those descriptions together in a way that allows us to then come to grasp the object enclosed by them.’ Another way I thought about it had to do with drawing. When you first start out, there’s a tendency to want to fill in with pencil the spaces that you want to highlight. Kids draw in color on the cheeks. As you go along, though, you realize that when you want to highlight something, you don’t draw it in. You fill in/shade the spaces around it. Saunders here is the writer analog of an excellent drawer. He gives us the shading and we are left to see the highlight. The second thought I wanted to share is this: the style and topic of Lincoln in the Bardo is not representative of much of Saunder’s other writing! His short stories are fun, griping, and often techno-dystopic, with sharp criticisms of consumerism and classism, but elegiac they are not!)
  12. Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf
  13. Book Collecting: A Modern Guide by Jean Peters
  14. Modern Book Collecting by Robert A Wilson
  15. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of American Culture by Joshua Kendall (great topic but disappointing read)
  16. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman (read after seeing the movie, I kid you not, about six times in theaters. Over the course of a single week. Dark times, friends. Dark times)
  17. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs (prep for my life-changing Virginia Woolf reading and walking trip [see post re: Boston Globe article here])
  18. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  19. Why Does Inequality Matter? by Tim Scanlon
  20. We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler (loved this and before you blame Citizens United as the critical moment where the Court went wrong, you absolutely must read this)
  21. The Rare Book Market Today by William S. Reese
  22. Publisher for the Masses, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius by Alton R. Lee (another great topic but just so-so execution)
  23. Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly: Book Collecting in a Golden Age by Joel Silver (loved this. I fantasize about having this kind of relationship to a dealer)
  24. Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History by Rebecca Romney
  25. The Early Community at Bedford Park: Corporate Happiness in the First Garden Suburb by Margaret Jones Bolsterli (again, love the topic but execution leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, beggars can’t be choosers where many of my interests are concerned)
  26. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (a short story collection. I enjoyed the weirdness and themes)
  27. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Lydia Davis translation) (Will read Adam Thorpe’s translation in the future as well)
  28. The Lesbian Community, with an Afterword, 1980 by Deborah Goleman Wolf (covers the development of the San Francisco lesbian feminist community from 1972-75. Describes the women involved and the community itself. Favorite part was the brief discussion of a lesbian feminist bookstore. Such an under-investigated piece of our collective intellectual history. Recommend!)
  29. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks
  30. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (third reading? Remains one of my favorite novels of all time)
  31. The Veiled Woman by Anaïs Nin
  32. The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley (If found a book about a bookshop lacking, you know you should think twice before reading it)
  33. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
  34. Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship by Kayleen Schaefer (gave this to my sister and some friends going through rough times. Such a great topic, even though this book is just ok)
  35. The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between by Stacey D’Erasmo (one in a series of craft books published by Graywolf Press. Have gotten something out of them all)
  36. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned: Spectacle, Empire and Metaphysics by Chanon Ross (about the ‘power and prevalence of spectacle’ in the modern era. Focuses on Christian views of this over history. My Goodreads review, “One need not be religious to find this book incredibly interesting. I have pages and pages of notes and new ideas.”)
  37. Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice by Stephanie Paulsell (Stephanie, from Harvard Divinity School, was our Virginia Woolf expert this summer. Her book is so important. Paraphrasing and de-contextualizing a bit, Stephanie makes you want to be a better person. And you would be, if you were around her all the time)
  38. Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places by Rebecca Rego Barry
  39. Hermann Zapf: A Life in Letters by Julian Waters (Lovers of beauty, look up Zapf)
  40. The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani (in the Graywolf Craft Series)
  41. My Solo Exchange Diary, Vol. 1 by Kabi Nagata (the sequel to My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. The original was, alas, much better)
  42. Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
  43. Interpreters of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (collection of short stories, introduced to me through a Craft of Fiction course I had the very good fortune to take this past semester)
  44. A Model World and Other Stories by Michael Chabon
  45. Success by Martin Amis (hate the players, hate the game, revel in the story)
  46. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (hands down my favorite book of the year. I love Pnin. My first Nabokov. The rumors are true: his writing is pure delight. It feels like he must love me, or at least enjoy flirting with me, through his prose. Also a nice way to shower after Success)
  47. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
  48. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (best read as a kid, I suspect)
  49. Political Virtue and Shopping by Michele Micheletti (not worth it)
  50. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America by Lizabeth Cohen (much more useful than the above. Pages of notes)
  51. Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb (a gift from a comic and Batman devotee I met at Sheila Water’s calligraphy retreat this summer)
  52. Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders
  53. Tenth of December by George Saunders
  54. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (again! The only book I read twice this year. God, I love this book)
  55. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (so well written, you’ll likely need a xanax (or two) to get through it)
  56. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (highly recommend. Bought my sister a copy)
  57. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (read again for class, with a new appreciation for her structuring)
  58. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  59. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (great idea packaged in a tragically lacking story)
  60. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
  61. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (loved it all but loved the Scrabble story best)

January Reads

I’ve decided to do another 52 book challenge this year. While last year I read more than 52, I didn’t want to set a higher goal this year because, in short, I’d like to avoid creating conditions that disincentivize the reading of both longer and more complex books. With a goal of 52, last year I was able to read a number of long books (e.g., Middlemarch and the biography of Chavez) and a number of complex books — books that I wanted to read very slowly (e.g., To the Lighthouse and a number of the more philosophical texts). This year I’d like to ensure I have the space to do that again.

With that, my January reads.

  1. Autumn by Ali Smith (embarrassing confession: I’d never heard of Ali Smith before reading an LGBTQ newsletter for Boston-area people that just happened to include a list of lesbian authors. After seeing her described as “Scotland’s Nobel Laureate-in-waiting”, I had to look her up. This book was a real treat. So much ‘high’ literature is depressing but this was quite the opposite. While the book is set in post-Brexit England, and while many of the characters have painful memories of past relationships, and live with an awareness of the narrowing of opportunities for them as time goes on, there is something quite hopeful and, I thought, joyful in these pages. Perhaps not so different from the conflicting feelings of closure, nostalgia, regret, and possibility that Autumn itself can evoke.
  2. How to be Both by Ali Smith (I read that the book is published in two versions. One version has the story Francesco del Cossa, the Italian renaissance artist, first, and the other has the story of George, a modern girl living in England, first. I happened to get the Francesco story first. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more the other way around and recommend the same to future readers. If you do insist on reading Francesco first, I think it best to read Francesco again, after you read George. Either way, I enjoyed Autumn more than this one.)
  3. Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin
  4. The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (my close friend was going to buy me this book but I thankfully ended up buying it for myself first. Thankfully because otherwise I’d feel bad saying the following: it’s not worth buying. I’ve not read her other work (work I’ve heard is fantastic, for what it’s worth) but this should not be a book. It was originally a lecture and there simply aren’t enough ideas in here to merit publication in book format. I wish her editor would have encouraged her to put forward a few ideas and then spend some time really developing them. As it stands, it could have been a nice (and easily shortened) Slate article. Disappointing. Though the book cover itself is appealing.

August Reads

Excited to report that I completed my 52-books-in-2016 challenge this month!

But now onto the August reads…

  1. At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution is Transforming Privacy by Jeannie Suk (YUP 2011)
  2. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016)
    • After reading the author’s interview with the New Conservative, this got bumped to the top of the list. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would (some of the dialogue reminded me of what I heard as a kid, and reading about it somehow elicits, among other things, laughter). Instead of some memoirs where you either feel like the author barely sees him/herself as an agent (which then leaves you feeling depressed and helpless as well) or where the author tells a story of triumphing over all with god/John Galt-like control (unrealistic and fails to appreciate how we all depend on those around us, and how important it is to have support – as a kid and as an adult) this was much more in the middle. He acknowledges how some members of his family not simply “saved him” but, better than that, provided him with the conditions from which he could go on to succeed. Also, a refreshing comment on how the military can turn lives around (I don’t think people in elite institutions often understand how someone screaming at you, making you do what they say, can really *increase* agency, but Vance explains how much of a difference his time there made). (note: both my parents were in the Air Force and I’m pretty sure my dad would agree. Mom is a different story) In short: really enjoyed, very quick read, and I suspect will give a lot of people an insight into a culture of which they are ignorant but, if this election cycle has shown anything, they should not be.
  3. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (Scribner 2000)
    • Atlas is not an inaccurate description. This book is massive, 570+ pages. And the font is small! Parts I enjoyed. Other parts, less so. If you want a now-slightly-outdated encyclopedic understanding of depression, here’s your book. Chapters go into detail about the author’s own experiences, the history of different drugs and treatments, the history of how we’ve understood depression over the centuries (I liked that part), and an unfortunately short look at what it’s like to deal with mental illness for those who don’t come (in contrast to the author) from such privileged backgrounds.
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (originally Putnam’s Sons 1966)
    •  A gift with high praise from Will B., though he hadn’t read the thing since he was a kid. Libertarians will enjoy. Enjoyed the alternate family structures, the conscious computer (Mike!), and the political and revolutionary strategy. A quick-witted sort of tone. No Ursula K. Le Guin (Dispossessed is better) and no Octavia Butler, but good. And let’s be real: that is an awesome title.

July Reads

With the move back to Cambridge, writing, the start of GRE prep, and two weeks of fantastic cycling in Montana with The Cycling House (100% recommend them), reading was a bit light this month.

  1. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations by José Medina (OUP)
  2. Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work by Gillian Thomas (St. Martin’s Press)
    • Was putzing around the MIT coop bookshop and stumbled upon this. Started reading a few pages and decided I just had to finish it. If you like the Law Stories Series of books, you’ll enjoy this. Would be a great optional reading recommendation for students in an Employment Law-type class.
  3. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (originally published by Nation Books in 2004 but my version, with a new foreword and afterword, was published by Haymarket Books [check out their site for lots of great reads] in 2016)
    • I was feeling a bit depressed and decided to read something with a, well, more hopeful tenor than my newsfeed. Good tidbits on narrative ethics, conflict, clashing conceptions of self, epistemic injustice, and the necessity of imagination/role of imagination in social progress.
  4. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
    • Unbelievably good. The first Hesse I’ve read and I had to stop myself from taking pictures of every single page and sending them to friends. For those interested in narrative, multiple identities/selves, etc. this is absolutely positively amazing.

June Reads

 

  1. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster)

What is the relationship between fantasy and reality? Here I have in mind two different kinds of fantasy: (1) alternative worlds we gain exposure to through, among other things, stories; (2) the fantasies we have in our heads.

As for version (1), I’ve been thinking about/reading about whether we have a duty of epistemic resistance (borrowing philosopher José Medina’s term from The Epistemology of Resistance).The idea here is something like: each of us needs to cultivate epistemic openness to alternative points of view and ways of knowing because it is through confrontation with these alternative perspectives that ethical learning happens. Part of cultivating this openness is engaging in the kinds of self-interrogation that make us feel perplexed and self-estranged. From that space of perplexity and alienation-from-self,  we are able to take seriously – listen truly – to the views of others. And the reason: because we are less stuck in our own perspective. We’ve seen the contingencies, conflicts, problems, latent in the mosaic of beliefs and commitments we have. (I know very little about the tradition, but, relying on Medina again, this is all part of the Pragmatist tradition espoused by Dewey, Jane Addams, and others.). Given how this works, we should affirmatively look for ways to confront ourselves with radically different views and possible worlds. (This is, for what it’s worth, part of why I think science fiction *can* be so important – some authors, like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Marge Piercy, create worlds that really do jolt us/confront us with something uncomfortably different, thereby inviting us to question everything that seems axiomatic in our own lives and worlds).

As for version (2), what’s the relationship between those fantasies and our ethical commitments? Take sexual fantasies. If one is turned-on by depictions of women being degraded or humiliated, does that necessarily say something about one’s views and ethical commitments about women “in real life”? Some feminist theorists think the line between fantasy and real life is illusory – porn of men degrading women cannot but negatively effect the treatment of women. Others think there’s at least the possibility of compartmentalization. (think of violent video games – most (?) seem to think there’s no necessary relation between entering into those fantastic worlds and being violent in real life.)  I don’t know, though I tentatively think it’s unlikely there’s a hermeneutic seal between the ethical and fantastical. It seems like our aesthetic preferences/responses, like emotions, are at least in some sense formed by/guided by/influenced by/responsive to our ethical commitments. For instance, imagine the creation of totally computer-generated child pornography. That is, no children were involved, it’s all animated, etc. etc. I suspect that most people would find the idea of being turned on by that repugnant, even though it’s not real, and even though it’s just fantasy. They think people should not be turned on by depictions of that thing. Ever. And yet… people don’t seem to have that same no-go response to depictions (even if those depictions are fake in some sense [though I don’t think they’re very fake]) of women being humiliated and/or dominated, though they swear up and down they think the subordination of women “in real life” is wrong. What’s the difference? A response might be: even fake child porn is a depiction of someone doing something to someone who we think just cannot consent, whereas a woman can consent to being humiliated. So it’s sexy because there’s consent? Perhaps. But the turn-on is the humiliation and degradation — the consent just seems to be what then might make being turned on by that “ok” in some sense.

Another thought: there might be a lot else going on in what makes something we think ethically problematic fodder for fantasy. The taboo generally might work, and that subordination is now supposedly taboo, that might be a partial explanation. (though that doesn’t seem to work for fake child porn!)

One more thought I’ve been mulling over: thinking back to fantasy version (1), we have radically different understandings and perspectives depending on where we stand in relation to others. Different perspectives give us access to different kinds of knowledge, different insights. What if playing out different roles (sexual being just one example, though an area where I suspect adults feel more free to play than they do (sadly) otherwise) can give us access to different understandings. Could a man, for instance, ever play out a submissive, dominated role in one area as a way of coming to understand a bit more what that is like for groups that are more oppressed generally? We know that acting, even for a short time, can lead us to really embody those roles (think Milgram experiment). And what if that might be a good thing, at least sometimes?

That’s all a long introduction to House of Holes. This book, I had hoped, would speak to both versions (1) and (2). Alas, not so much.

The premise is something like this: ordinary objects, like dryer and golf holes, are occasional-portals, transporting everyday people to The House of Holes, a magical, carnivalesque sex resort where any and all sexual desires can be fulfilled… for a price.

Re: Fantasy (1) (exposure to new ideas)

As I said, I was under the impression that the book would make space for imagining different kinds of sexuality outside the everyday heteronormative stuff we are all exposed to. In short, I thought it would be like SF — enter an alien world and, through exposure, be changed a little. Or learn something new and weird about yourself. But no. First, how odd that there was basically zero same-sex sex. How is that possible? More than that, the vast majority of the fantasies were just the same old heteronormative tropes on steroids. Granted, lots of steroids. Lots and lots of steroids, but the underlying idea of what was sexual was fundamentally and almost always centered on women as sex objects, men turned on by doing things to them, and women being turned on by being used. Even the economy of House of Holes seemed saturated in the same old gender awfulness: when men wanted something, they had to pay money or temporarily give up a body part (like an arm, in exchange for a larger penis). When women wanted something — for instance, a woman who wanted to have sex with a tree — you know what she had to do? Guess. Yep — perform some sort of sexual act for a man. When women wanted something they almost invariably had to pay with sex. Men (at least, only men had them) could also buy butt-grabbing passes. One in possession of such a card had the right to go up to any woman and demand the right to grope her bottom (they could also demand to do what they wanted with said bottom out in public or require her to go back to their rooms, for instance). Women were forbidden to refuse, on pains of (if I remember correctly) all their clothes disappearing, forcing them to walk around naked. Like… is that supposed to be paradise for women? I don’t deny that some women will like some (or all) of what the book depicts, but I found the sexual politics not so great and, more to my original point, not the kind of mind-bending experience I was hoping it would be. That’s not to say that some of the book wasn’t fun at times, and I certainly appreciated female characters who fully and openly embraced sex, but, again, this was not a whole new world.

Re: Fantasy (2) (ethics and aesthetics)

The above pretty much captures my issues. What was fascinating to me: of all the reviews I read on this book, none seemed to mention these potential critiques. Everyone cheered that it was “sex positive.” And perhaps they are right, in some sense. Some women, some of the time, want to be subordinated in sex. And if it just so happens that every woman depicted in House of Holes had that view, then I suppose it was positive for them. The question might be (1) should we worry about what people fantasize about and (2) is it problematic when we only depict one kind of fantasy/way of being sexual? It would have been much neater to see a woman who enjoyed subordination sometimes but other times took on the dominant role. It also would have been great to see some sex that wasn’t so focused on power-as-sexual-fuel at all. Though perhaps Baker is sympathetic to, or at least finds descriptively accurate, Oscar Wilde’s view: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

40. Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800 by Woodruff Smith (Routledge)

41. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (updated edition, Haymarket Books)

This book is a collection of essays, the most famous among them: Men Explain Things to Men — the essay known for leading to the creation of the term “mansplaining”. (Tidbit: the author notes in a postscript that she has “doubts” about the term: “it seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should. If it’s not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know: it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.” (13). I agree with her there.

The collection is great. My favorite two: Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable and Cassandra Among the CreepsCassandra deals with what Miranda Fricker would call epistemic injustice, mostly testimonial injustice specifically. In contrast to the Boy Who Cried Wolf, who was believed and believed until finally he wasn’t, Cassandra is the story of a woman who has the power of true prophecy but was cursed by Apollo (as punishment for refusing to have sex with him) so nobody would ever believe her. From there, Solnit discusses the harms we experience when others fail to take us seriously and fail to hear us. “Silence, like Dante’s hell, has its concentric circles.” (107). From talking about silencing, invoking both Judith Herman and Susan Brison’s work in this area (both scholars I respect immensely), she talks about the power of language, narrative construction, and how how words help us both describe and reshape our world. Like Fricker, the concept of sexual harassment is discussed. A great read on the heels of Consumption and the Making of Respectability.

Another interesting bit related to Respectability and the question of whether it can be used for subversive purposes (as question Smith raised): here, Solnit discusses the los desaparecidos (the disappeared) during Argentina’s “dirty war” (1976-1983) and the success the mothers had in raising awareness and pushing for change. As Solnit understands it (and I just don’t know nearly enough to comment on this), the mothers used the respectability that they had in virtue of motherhood (itself a result of the respectability women are given in the domain of femininity, domesticity, emotions, etc.) to be taken seriously. Whereas others fighting against the regime were brushed aside and delegitimized as Radical, the same could not be done to mothers who invoked the revered concept of motherly love. Here, we might say that the respectability women get through domestication, while subordinating in some (most) ways, was also itself a tool they could use for subversive ends. It gave them a narrow way to enter public spaces, where they might usually be excluded, to push for justice.

42. Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America by Dana Frank  (originally South End Press, though I read the Haymarket Press version – purchased at the Chicago Lit Fest!)

I’m writing this on a plane without the book so I don’t have access to my notes! Short version: interesting and mind-opening.

43. The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin

44. From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century by Alexander Gourevitch (Cambridge University Press)

Absolutely worth reading. I did not before this understand the relationship between the concept of Solidarity and the neo-republican conception of freedom. It goes a long way toward explaining why, historically, collective action was considered masculine, whereas today it seems to invoke the feminine. I’d like to understand more how that shift to the feminine occurred. Perhaps it tracks declines in unionization?