Thursday, December 1, 2016

November 2016 Reading Wrapup

This month, I participated in "Non-Fiction November", which encourages readers to incorporate more non-fiction reading into their bibliographic diets.  More specifically, there were four challenges in which readers could divide their non-fiction reading, meant either as a way to encourage more depth in the subject matter of the books, or as a way for less-seasoned readers to find non-fiction books that might appeal them.  The four categories are as follows:
  1. "New" (recent release, recent purchase, new subject matter, etc.)
  2. "Controversial" (debated subject matter, memoir/biography of a controversial figure, etc.)
  3. "Important" (subject important to your life, necessary to be a more educated citizen, etc.)
  4. "Fascinating" (mind-blowing topic, etc.)
I enjoy quite a bit of non-fiction reading already (mostly historical diaries, essays, and memoirs) so I challenged myself to read 100% non-fiction during November.  Here are the books I read, a bit about them, and into which of the four categories they fall:

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson

In 2004, as Maggie Nelson is preparing to release her poetry collection Jane: A Murder, she receives word that police believe they have found the man responsible for her aunt Jane's death, decades before.  In The Red Parts, the author explores her involvement in the investigation of the killer, primarily through research for her poetry collection and her experiences as the investigation moves toward arrest and eventually the trial itself.  Through this, the reader is taken, ultimately, on a journey to come to terms with whose life really matters, and how much, in society.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The theme of empathy runs throughout the essays in this collection, even though the particular topics diverge from one another quite significantly.  In each of the entries, there is an attempt by the author to see life through the eyes of the people she encounters, no matter how different their experiences have been from hers.  I found that some essays were more successful in this endeavor than others, but overall The Empathy Exams was a satisfying reading experience.

Slavery and the Underground Railroad in South Central Pennsylvania by Cooper Wingert

In this slim book, Cooper Wingert focuses attention to the Underground Railroad in the area of South Central Pennsylvania, just West of the Susquehanna River.  The story begins in the early days of Pennsylvania's founding, and continues through the Civil War and ends just after the passing of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.  The work is well researched, as evidenced by the combined 20 pages of Notes and Bibliography, but there were problems with the writing style that took away from my enjoyment of the book.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

While often considered to be a feminist masterpiece, this work really is a long-form essay in favor of educating females.  She argues that, because women are the ones who become mothers, they should be well-educated so that they can promote and model healthy behaviors, relationships, and ideals in their children.  In fact, she recommends a national system of education for all children up to a certain age, where boys and girls of all social classes are educated together.  Once they get a bit more mature, lower-class children should be educated separately, to prepare them for whatever employment they will be expected to fulfill.  While this is quite revolutionary for the 1790's, a modern audience may not be in full accord with categorizing this work as feminist.  It is largely a book of its time, but in some important ways more far-looking.

Kill 'em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

Ostensibly a biography of legendary performer James Brown, McBride uses it to tell a much larger, heartrending story about American racism, greed, violence, and poverty.  The author begins with telling a tale about how, near the end of James Brown's life, he lived not far from the McBrides in Queens.  McBride's sister Dottie, as a young child, bravely walked up to the front door of Mr. Brown's house, rang the doorbell, and actually met the man.  This, coupled with McBride's musicianship and training as a journalist, meld together perfectly in creating this masterful biography.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

In her powerful autobiography, Eugenia Ginzburg shares her experiences of being arrested in 1937, imprisoned, and eventually sent to do grueling manual labor in a Siberian gulag.  She was "officially" convicted as a political terrorist and Enemy of the People.  Naturally, none of this was true - she was part of Joseph Stalin's "Great Purge" campaign.  While her experiences were unbelievably harrowing and heartbreaking, it is her unrelentingly strong spirit that shines through this work.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this long-form essay, the author discusses her view on all things "book cover".  She leads with a personal story about how she wished that her school had uniforms, like those her cousins wore at their schools in India, because it was more egalitarian.  Then, she shares her strong opinions about the relationship between books, book covers, publishers, authors, and readers.  It was fascinating to realize that the humble book cover is really living at the confluence of art, marketing, psychology, sales, and readability.  While this essay only touches on book covers, it certainly gives readers a glance at an oft-hidden world, and may cause you to look more critically at the books on your shelves.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson gives readers an account of her life, not just as a Black woman in mid-twentieth century Chicago, but as an upper-class Black woman.  Her father was the head of pediatrics at a prominent hospital, and her mother was a socialite.  Because of her family's social status, the author enjoyed a certain amount of privilege, compared to lower-class Blacks.  She was raised to behave in a certain way, to talk a certain way, and to dress/groom in a certain way - all that would differentiate her from the stereotypes of Black People in that time and place.  The Jeffersons were afforded some privilege, but had to work twice as hard and be twice as respectable to maintain that privilege in white society.

An Indigenous People's History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

In this incredible book, the author challenges the enduring, national narrative of the founding of the country.  Instead of the heroic settlers taking on the savage and brutal Indians, the research has proven that the opposite was true.  Indigenous peoples lost their land due to illegal seizure and genocidal activities of the white settlers, with no concern for the legacy and impact of their activities.  Native Americans have historically been seen as an inconvenience to be either assimilated or destroyed.  They represent non-Capitalist traditions and ways of life, which go against American ideals of "progress".  To remove the dominant origin myth and replace it with a historically accurate portrayal of the country's founding and development would mean a significant change in mindset, and coming to terms with the genocidal activities of our founders and family members.  But just because it's difficult doesn't mean it should be done.

Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsythe

If you've ever wondered if a writer could make rhetoric hilariously informative, here is your answer - yes!  In Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsythe employs his distinctive writing style that not only elicits laughs but help you appreciate some of what makes great literature, lyrics, lines, and poetry so timeless and endlessly interesting.  Topics he covers include alliteration, merism, rhetorical questions, epizeuxis, and paradox - amongst many others.  You'll learn, you'll laugh, you'll have tidbits to share at parties and social gatherings.  What more could you ask for?


Outlaw Marriages by Rodger Streitmatter

A collection of brief, biographies-in-essay, Outlaw Marriages is a fascinating read.  Each chapter contains the profile of a same-sex couple who made a major and lasting impact on the world, in a time when such couples were not accepted in society.  Some of the names, like Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams, and Greta Garbo may be familiar, but just as many (and more) are not.  It was inspiring, in a world where same-sex relationships are still denounced by many in society, to learn just how much our culture has benefited from the contributions of these couples.  Spheres of influence range from literature and art, to education and social justice, to music and interior design - and span from 1865 through 1988.

Librorum annis