September 2018 mid-month round-up

I’ve hit the 100 book mark for 2018! My 100th book was, perhaps fittingly, Mary Beard’s manifesto, Women and Power, in which she draws links to the Western world’s Greco-Roman heritage to argue how the silencing of women in the public sphere is historically enabled, and how a correction of this silencing entails rethinking what we “know” and feel about power. (She also references a novella, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, of Yellow Wallpaper fame, which sounds amazing – Utopian civilization composed entirely of women.)

6 books so far in September, two others of note:

Margaret Atwood The Penelopiad A retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s POV, featuring the hanged maidens as Greek chorus. Light-footed, lethally sharp, so sharp you don’t even know you’ve been cut – the essential cruelty of human nature in forgetting and erasing and holding female life so so undear, so carelessly, in unsentimental, even blackly humorous prose. Like so many others, I’ve always loved that phrase wine-dark seas, and it takes on a fresh, fertile, febrile new meaning here.

Holly Bourne How Do You Like Me Now? Tori Bailey is a breakout social media success and bestselling author and motivational speaker, whose success is built on authenticity, and refusing to buy into “conventional” tropes about what successful feminine identity mean in the social media age – it turns out, by buying into other tropes about what “authenticity” looks like. Now, however, Tori is 31 and her life is falling apart, and not in a social-media friendly way. What to do? A powerful callback to Bridget Jones, it introduces some interesting ideas about how we prettify authenticity for other people’s consumption, and how success at 25 and 31 look very very different. And ultimately, how it’s okay to change, and to want change.

Louise Candlish Our House A really fun thriller about a woman who comes home to find her house has been sold out from under her feet.

3.5 months and 50 books to go to hit my 150 book target for 2018. That means I should be reading 15 books a month, and another 5 books by the end of September.

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Have a picture of my book haul from the Waterstones in Ealing Broadway last week.

Onwards through September and definitively into the final quarter of the year.

xxoo

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Handful of Quotes: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture

I’m not a huge fan of Ishiguro’s fiction in execution, but I do love their core premises (sort of the reaction I have to Neil Gaiman’s fiction), so I picked up a copy of his Nobel lecture when I was in the Ealing Broadway Waterstone’s last week. Some quotable bits:

On writing international fiction

“In fact my new book, to be called The Remains of the Day, seemed English in the extreme – though not, I hoped, in the manner of many British authors of the older generation. I’d been careful not to assume, as I felt many of them did, that my readers were all English, with native familiarity of English nuances and preoccupations. By then, writers like Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul had forged the way for a more international, outward-looking British literature, one that didn’t claim any centrality or automatic importance for Britain. Their writing was post-colonial in the widest sense. I wanted, like them, to write “international” fiction that could easily cross cultural and linguistic boundaries, even while writing a story set in what seemed a peculiarly English world. My version of England would be a kind of mythical one, whose outlines, I believed, were already present in the imaginations of many people around the world, including those who had never visited the country.”

On a moral life lived

“…by failing to take moral and political responsibility for his life, he has in some profound sense wasted that life.” (This really hit me – the necessity of choosing, of taking a stand, even when – maybe especially when – it would be easier not to.)

On good writing

“The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship.”

“A character in a story became three-dimensional, he’d (E.M. Forester) said, by virtue of the fact that they ‘surprised us convincingly’.”

“But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

“..we must take great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature. The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them…”

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(Superlate) August Round-Up

In August I

  1. missed my mid-month round-up!
  2. read 13 books

There were some really good books in August, maybe some of my favourites of the year, so far. Some notable reads

Naomi Novik Spinning Silver I’ve been eagerly waiting for more of Novik’s work since reading Uprooted last year. This beautiful, fat retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, working off Jewish mythology and set in the glittering, icy forests and mountains of the best, most cruel fairytales was just as good as Uprooted. The characters are strong and smart and cunning, the tricks and sly rules of magic charm and delight, the prose is deft and sure. I’ve been recommending this to everybody but it hasn’t taken much convincing – many of my friends are already Novik fans.

Victoria Helen Stone Jane Doe Another one I’ve been recommending to everybody. This may be my favourite thriller since Gone Girl, and I’ve read a fair few thrillers since then. The anti-heroine is sociopathic in the best kind of way, and her incisive observations about gender relations in contemporary US society are funny and spot on, in the vein of Amy’s infamous Cool Girls analysis. You can’t help rooting for her.

Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House I listened to the Teen Creeps podcast about this novella and it was recently recommended to me again, and I’m glad it was. I was worried it was going to be too scary – it turned out to be atmospheric and tilted and occasionally pretty funny, a sly and clever read, but not too scary (and I’m super chicken).

Jenny Han To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (trilogy) I wanted to watch the movie on Netflix, but felt like I should read the books before I did. They’re great YA fluff – easy and sweet and so much better than the very likeable movie, which is pretty light on story and oddly paced. Half-Korean, half white heroine, lovely love interests, great family dynamics developed over the three books.

I’ve already spoken about Hidden Figures here, which was definitely an August notable read and I read three Bruneian works:

Ikhtiyar Group Anugerah which I reviewed for The Scoop here

Roshi Just Divorced A series of anonymous, vague and therefore forgettable vignettes

Aammton Alias Be the 1 percent: Unlock Secrets to True Success, Real Wealth and Ultimate Happiness There are some endearing moments in this memoir where Alias’ energy and eagerness leaps off the page. Otherwise, however, it’s not a very successful memoir – it’s too vague on specifics, like what exactly prompted Alias’ change of heart and love of writing, what exactly this 1 percent is (“you’ll know a 1 percenter when you see him/her” is not very helpful advice), and for a memoir that promises to “unlock secrets” it’s very strange (and a bit cult-like) to have statements like “I have promised Bob that I would not talk much about the Power of Nothing in this book. If you can read between the lines and find glimpses of the Power of Nothing, then you are blessed and on the right path”; “I won’t say what the venture is”. Spill the beans, Alias.

 

Expense Report for August

16 books bought on Amazon UK, totally 160.39BND (approx).

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[NABP] On being too feminist

“You should write an article on what it’s like to date a feminist,” I tell K.

He laughs. “You know, I sometimes forget you are a feminist,” he says to me. “Until you say something and then I remember, oh right, she is an ultra feminist. It’s just not the first thing I think about when I think about you.”

“It’s not my primary identity.”

“It’s not your primary identity.”

***

Friend X asks Friend Y why she doesn’t join the Feminist Book Club meetings. “Is it because they’re too feminist?” she asks knowingly.

***

“I’m not a feminist,” she tells me over coffee. “I’m a Muslim.”

***

“No, no!” Prof Y says. “We are a progressive faculty! A man may be the head, but the power behind the throne is the woman.” He is speaking, jocularly, about the two female clerks. “They are the most important people here, and they are women! Their work is invisible and necessary. We are in awe of them.”

A woman’s work is a noble sacrifice. A man’s work is paid.

***

I am new to the faculty, fresh from a PhD. “Girl,” Prof X says to me. I forget the rest of what he said to me then. I have not, seven years later, forgotten being called “girl”.

***

What is “too feminist”? Feminism – the word – is fearful. It means anti-feminine; the loud women, the dragon-ladies and lady bosses. It means too feminine: the women who wear “too much makeup”, bold red lips and thick black wings. It means both: the women who sport pixie cuts and steel stilettoes. Woman and too woman at the same time. The manrepeller women. The ones who don’t know that men prefer the natural no-makeup look; soft and simple, pink and fair, slim and small. It is the women without husbands, who seem not to mind not having husbands.

Too feminist means secular Western liberalism. It means the Muslim women who don’t wear tudong, who go free-hair and question the hadiths that were told to them in Ugama school by male teachers who talked about sex and then maybe touched them in mengaji classes. It means the women who talk about equal rights as if Islam hasn’t elevated women already. Corrupted by the West. Ajaran sesat. Dear sister. I advise you because I care about you. I love you. I want you to be like me. I am scared because you are not.

***

 Is too feminist a mother, who wants her daughter to move freely in this world, without the fear that dogged her own movements? Physical fear – of men. Social fear – of what people would say. People, always the fear of people and not God.

Is too feminist a wife who knows her rights – to nafkah, to pleasure, to a home of her own – as well as her duties?

Is too feminist the teacher who sees in her classroom the way that the girls, thirteen fourteen fifteen, talk about being married by twenty one and helping with the chores at home, and the boys, thirteen fourteen fifteen, talk about not liking this kind of girl and that kind of girl. The boys’ approval is a crown bestowed on the pretty, the non-threatening. But a small crown. Not the kind that they wear themselves, grown into and out of their skulls, a part of their bone and birthright. A crown they’ve been told so many times is there that they can all but see it. Not that kind of crown. But a pretty, glittering tiara, so delicate and dainty that it might fall off if you moved too fast or too much. If you breathed wrong.

***

What is too feminist? Where is the line, what is it? That tips a woman over from being feminist to too feminist? The “too” takes it from reasonable to extreme. Too feminist is too much. Too too too.

Names are powerful. To agree to a name is to own and be owned by it. I am Bruneian. (too Bruneian). I answer only to God. (too Muslim). I am a feminist. (too feminist)

Any kind of feminist is too feminist to those who are scared.

Any kind of strength is too strong to those who are weak.

***

K forgets I am a feminist, because we don’t label the people we love. To the people we love, we are not types or adjectives but entireties. Galaxies.

I am a feminist; I am also a Muslim and a scholar and a Bruneian. All of these identities inform each other and the way I move in this world. They cannot be divorced from each other: I am a feminist because I am a Muslim and a scholar and a Bruneian. I am a Muslim because I am a feminist and a scholar and a Bruneian. Endless permutations.

My adjectives cannibalize each other. They become compost and grow out of their own discarded, earthworm-turned, rich soil. I orient myself by the values of all of my identities combined and mixed and thought about. I own and am owned by the names I choose.

I choose feminist; too feminist is chosen for me. Too is always an external act, insisting on a frame for a vast and unknowable picture that doesn’t need cropping. Too is the lens that makes a square out of a landscape, deciding and directing what stays outside the photograph.

In the end, to be anything is to be too to someone else. That’s as it should be. All of us are, ultimately, too immense for anyone else to understand entirely. We can only choose how to define our own “too”s. We can choose to live within the frames chosen by others, or we can choose to explode those frames and build our own.

I was always going to be too, if I was going to be anything at all.

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Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

In Outliers, one of Malcolm Gladwell’s points is that no achievement is truly individual in nature. We are always standing on the shoulders of timing, geography, the work of the the generations before us, the privileges granted us by our parents, our communities. Our talent and hard work may be (mostly) our own, but they are also scaffolded into history by the work of those around us. Exceptionalism doesn’t emerge out of a vaccuum.

“This is the dawn of a life, a promise held forth. We who have been fortunate enough to guide that genius and help mold it, even for a little while, will look on with interest during the coming years.” (Hidden Figures)

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A similar statement that I love, by Stephen Jay Gould: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

“It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities — legalized segregation, racial discrimination — there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.” (Hidden Figures)

If exceptional achievement – or any achievement – is due even at least partially to individual opportunity, then the responsibility and duty of those who achieve is to work so that those opportunities are more widespread. The responsibility of the free is to work to free all – from discrimination, bias, poverty – every factor that prevents every individual human being from living with dignity and autonomy and fullness.

“[Mary Jackson] earned her engineering title through hard work, talent, and drive, but the opportunity to fight for it was made possible by the work of the people who had come before her. […] Each one had cracked the hole in the wall a little wider, allowing the next talent to come through. And now that Mary had walked through, she was going to open the wall as wide as possible for the people coming behind her.” (Hidden Figures)

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Courtesy of NASA and Essence 

So a book like Hidden Figures was always going to appeal to me. It’s the nature of history to forget all but the most exceptional, blurring the details of all the smaller, teeth-gritting achievements and achievers that make the exceptional possible, and the determination of Margot Lee Shetterly to give these forgotten women “the grand, sweeping narrative they deserved,” “not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic,” is stunning in the work that had to be done, the confidence that holds the narrative together. The book knows, it knows that this story is incredible because it is the story of exceptional individuals doing exceptional things, backed by a community that was always under attack by white America. The women in this book – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Christine Mann – they worked towards, amongst other things, putting a man in space for the sheer joy of achieving. It was a point of pride that when they did, those achievements uplifted their communities as well.

“Achievement through hard work, social progress through science, possibility through belief…when Levi reached out and took hold of the first-place trophy, Mary witnessed, in one proud and emotional moment, the embodiment of so much that she held dear. Of course, Mary knew that her son was a ringer; the two of them had been building to win. Brain busters’ kids were supposed to come out on top in a race like this, even if the brain buster was a woman, or black, or both. Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son’s achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.” (Hidden Figures)

Something I loved about this book is that it doesn’t make tragedies of the compromises we all make to live. It asks of Katherine Goble/Johnson, “Did she imagine what her talent might look like if it were pushed to the limit?” but it’s also clear that the choice to prioritize her family, early on, was one that brought Johnson great joy.

Hidden Figures also notes that exceptional though these women were, what they were working on as NASA tried to put a man in space was a job in which “the collective effort [was] so much greater than the sum of the individual parts that it began to feel like a separate being”. The joy of the individual lay in the certainty that [she] “had given her best to her part of the grand puzzle.” I loved the selflessness of that, the selflessness that characterizes all great collaboration and endeavour – the commitment to what needs to be done greater than individual ego. I also love this line on Katherine Johnson: “She is generous in her appreciation of other people’s talents in the way of someone who is in full command of her own gifts.” (goalz)

One of the great things about reading non-fiction is that even if it’s not very well written, the story itself is sometimes good enough to make it worth the read. Happily, Hidden Figures is written in a way that does justice to the story – it’s very sciencey in parts, but that’s necessary so the reader understands the magnitude of what the women were attempting to do. And the sciencey bits are broken down as well as possible into laymen’s terms without oversimplifying the complex. It jumps around from woman to woman, time period to time period, but this is all mostly tied up in the end. Most of all, I loved that it brought to light those moments, those people who just touched the glass ceiling, who didn’t make it through but who made it possible for the next person to smash it to pieces.

“Dorothy Vaughan’s time as a supervisor back in the 1930s was relatively brief, but during those years she had midwifed many careers. Her name never appeared on a single research report, but she had contributed, directly or indirectly, to scores of them.” (Hidden Figures)

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July 2018 Round-Up

Shocking progress after the mid-month report – I only managed to finish two more books. Both were well worth reading.

  1. Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy: How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations (non-fiction; a look at awkwardness, awkward situations, why we feel awkward, the physiological effects of awkwardness, how we can be less awkward – realize that nobody pays as much attention to us as us; by being more forgiving of ourselves and others; by concentrating on being a good and generous listener rather than by focusing on self); and
  2. Noel Streatfeild’s The Painted Garden (children’s novel by the writer of Ballet Shoes, which I always loved; I have a weakness for children’s novels from the first half of the 20th century – there’s a certain ruthlessness to them that I appreciate much more as an adult reader. I have a few more things to say about The Painted Garden, but I’ll put them in a separate post.)

Really shocking progress in July, but in fairness, there was a wedding, family visiting, with all the general mayhem those things entailed, so I’m not beating myself up about it.

In any case, August started off with a reading bang! I managed to finish Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly this morning – I loved the movie, and definitely want to rewatch it now that I’ve read the book. I’ll put up a separate post about this one, because it really was great, and very generous and quotable.

Expense Report

Really pleased to say that I was relatively frugal with book spending this month – a total of BND142.61

10.41 GBP from Amazon UK; 60AUD from Melbourne Airport; 74NZD from various bookstores in Auckland.

I’m not sure what I’m reading next – maybe something light, as semester has started and I need to be re-reading some texts. Vivian Shaw’s Dreadful Practice was just released; maybe that!

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Mid-month update: July 2018

Halfway through July, the count is 6 books, and a total of 79 books for the year. I think I’m about 2-3 books behind where I should be in 2018, but hopefully I can make it up some time in the next few months.

Notable reads in July so far:

Helen Hoang The Kiss Quotient I’ve heard that this romance about a heroine with autism and a male escort is this year’s The Hating Game (Sally Thorne), which I loved. I read The Kiss Quotient while travelling and expected it to be a little cheesy, a little forced, but it wasn’t. It was a classic romance, although I had some thoughts about how the interracial dynamics were represented. It was a very easy but not a light, read.

Sally Franson A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out I didn’t have a lot of expectations for this beyond being a peppy, Buzzfeedy take on millenial life, love and creativity – it was that, and more. The heroine, Casey Pendergast, is a Literature graduate who now works in PR and marketing and is a genius at social media and image curation – and and at the start of the novel, moving into working with writers. She’s also genuine, idealistic, and very likeable as a character. There are excellent observations on feminism and how misogyny breaks you, a little bit at a time, and on the doublethink and mulitple gazes involved in social media, and the prose is really lovely in parts. The lines that stood out to me were the lines about reading, because they’re familiar but still true, always true: “Because books, the good ones, the ones you hold on to and come back to, they never disappoint. They’re the best kind of escape because, instead of leading you away from yourself, they end up circling you back to yourself, nice and easy, helping you see things not just as they are, but as you are too.

And though you’d think this circling would be the last thing you’d want, seeing as escapism was what you were after in the first place, it ends up being the best part. Because the people who made those books, they put themselves on the line to do so. They spent a long time working; they gave you the best of what lay inside them, though this may have hurt them too. And you can feel that in the good books; you might even call that feeling love. A feeling so much better than distraction, than pleasure, than obliteration, but boy, so much harder to do.”

These lines may not necessarily stand out by themselves, divorced from context, but I liked them, and I really liked this book. I think because I myself do believe in the ability and yearning of literature to stretch the “capacities of the human heart”, and that the best novels are the most generous as well as the most ruthless. “We must help people face who they are without flinching.”

Andrew Sean Greer Less This year’s Pulitzer prize winner – I don’t know that this extended travelogue about a middle-aged white writer going on a trip around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding, as the book puts it, invited my immediate sympathy or empathy. As the novel itself acknowledges, this is a kind of hero it is difficult to sympathize with. But it’s gentle, and tender, and compassionate in its handling and unfolding of love lost, real relationships amidst flamboyance and facetiousness. It didn’t make me want to seek out the author’s other novels, but it gave me a melancholy feeling that lingered, and I was rooting for the hero by the end.

I’m a few chapters in to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Middlesex has been nudging at the corners of my mind, so I’d like to finish those by the end of July.

Til then, happy reading!

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