Archive for December 2011
This year I read significantly less than last, which was both my first year blogging and keeping track. I gave very few 5-star ratings on Goodreads, maybe because I took more chances by straying from the “classics” and breaching new-to-me topics. I guess those risks didn’t quite pay off this year, though I will continue to take them in the future. Here’s the small list of books that got 5 stars from me this year:
I bet you can spot a few of my favorite themes, particularly in my non-fiction reading
And there you have it! As for 2012, The Year of Feminist Classics project that Amy, Ana, Iris and I hosted this year will be continued. We’re adding more hosts so that we will be better able to cover for each other when we’re busy (which is a lot, these days) and will be making the announcement about this year’s reading list soon.
So far I haven’t joined any challenges. I’m more interested in challenges this year than I was last, but honestly, I haven’t across any yet that particularly grab me. I might sign up for a few a little later down the road, but for now I’m still pretty happy leaving my reading plans wide open.
Thank you to everyone who’s commented here or inspired me to comment at your place. I’m so grateful for all the bloggy friends I’ve made and kept this year, and can’t wait to keep talking books with you all in 2012! Happy New Year’s Eve!!!
Galileo’s Daughter is a joint biography of Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun and the closest to him of his three children. Sobel gracefully recalls Galileo’s successes as a scientist and inventor; among them, the telescope, which aided him in support of the argument that the Earth moves around the Sun and is not, in fact, the center of the universe. Of course, she has no choice but to recall as well that for this conviction, Galileo was interrogated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for heresy despite the strength of his own religious beliefs. What’s particularly interesting about her telling of these events, which so greatly informed popular constructs of science and faith as opposing and mutually exclusive practices, is that the surviving letters that Galileo received from his daughter throughout the years are neatly incorporated throughout the book and shine light on a relationship that was central to both Galileo and his daughter, lending the tale personal and human appeal.
After reading Heloise and Abelard last spring, I developed somewhat of an interest in convents and the lives of nuns, which was nice to re-visit through the letters of Suor Maria Celeste. She wrote to her father frequently, sparing no detail of her daily life and activity. Unfortunately, without the same sort of analysis that was present in Heloise and Abelard, this became a bit tiresome. I was hoping their correspondence would more directly relate to the impact and implications of the astronomical discoveries that Galileo was making, but most of Suor Maria Celeste’s contributions to their dialogue were about purely domestic matters. She worried deeply about her father due to his chronic illnesses and this worry only increased, as one might imagine, with the political and religious tensions that lead to his interrogation by the Holy Office. She seemed to dote on him in a very sweet way that spoke to the depth of her love for him, but–and this is no fault of Sobel’s–it was strange to read her letters without also being able to read his letters to her (his were burned when they were found in her convent). It was clear that he loved and respected her for her intelligence and her character, yet the relationship could only appear painfully one-sided given the presentation.
What Sobel did well, I thought, was remind the reader of just how mind-blowing Galileo’s observations were at the time. It is difficult to imagine how unnerving it must have been, to have visual confirmation that our place in the universe was so drastically different from what had been assumed. Galileo’s work was completely disruptive of all existing patterns of thought and understanding, be they religious, political, or just every-day. Not only that, but these discoveries were taking place during a time of authoritative turnover in both politics and religion (which often amounted to the same) as well as the growing horror of a quickly-spreading plague. This context is crucial to understanding how and why Galileo came to be seen as THE figure at the center of a growing conceptual divide between science and faith, and Sobel connects those dots skillfully.
In the end, I got what I wanted from this book, which was only to reacquaint myself with some general history of science. I used to read a lot of pop-science books, which I’ve been thinking I might get back into, but it’s a subject (um, a super broad one, I realize) that I haven’t much touched since high school. I also got to learn a bit more about what it might have been like to live as a nun in Galileo’s time (1564-1642) and that was nice. But it wasn’t much more than that. It was a recap of things I’ve learned and forgotten, but nothing that struck me as particularly new and exciting. And while I was interested in the relationship between Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, I didn’t feel that their correspondence actually gave me a real sense of either’s personality. It also sometimes felt like an unnecessary detour from the more compelling story of Galileo’s discoveries and their ramifications. However, I would be willing to read Sobel again. In fact, her book Longitude sounds pretty fascinating. I wouldn’t rush out to read this one if you don’t have a particular interest, is all.
Did you all hear this story on NPR? Next month, Sotheby’s auctioning house will be taking bids on a 4,000 word magazine created by a teenaged Charlotte Bronte and her siblings. It contains short stories, news items, and advertisements, and it’s so small that it fits in the palm of a hand and must be read with a magnifying glass!
In one of Charlotte’s stories — a “powerful evocation of madness, especially when you think this is coming from a 14-year-old girl,” Heaton says — a man imprisons his enemy in the attic. He goes mad with guilt and imagines his enemies setting fire to his bed curtains.
It’s a scene that prefigures the famous madwoman-in-the-attic and the bed burning from Jane Eyre, proving that this small manuscript might be more than just a curiosity. Heaton says, “There are clear links between this manuscript … and the later work.”
In other news, my favorite comics character, T-Rex of Dinosaur Comics, read Pride and Prejudice the other day. Well, he saw one of the movies, anyway, and offers a very insightful interpretation of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship.
This book was kindly sent to me by One Peace Books, who have recently issued a new translation of the original work published in 1939.
The schoolgirl at the center of Dazai’s stream-of-consciousness novella is cynical, inquisitive, self-conscious, and superior all at once. She is a teenager, after all. Her mood swings are not just the ol’ adolescent hormones rearing their familiar, monstrous heads, though. As she takes us through a single day of her life, we see that she is battling demons both inside herself and out. Her classmates may irritate her, but that is nothing compared to the turmoil she feels at the recent loss of her father and the heavy cloud of mourning that weighs upon her mother. Her immediate concerns about teachers, friends, and house-guests seem unimportant on their own, but taken together they mark a process by which our troubled narrator learns to construct her own identity in what she sees as a world of cowardly conformity. She is quick-witted and a reader herself, wholly caught up in books and stories which, of course, I found wonderfully endearing.
The unnamed schoolgirl is eager to grow up, to be treated like an adult. At the same time, though, she dreads becoming a woman. She sees the lack of personality in her friend Kinko as inextricably linked to her incredible femininity and, upon recalling a heavily made-up woman she saw on the train that morning, proclaims that “women are disgusting” and “impure” (p. 47).
It’s as if that unbearable raw stench that clings to you after playing with goldfish has spread all over your body, and you wash and wash but you can’t get rid of it. Day by day, it’s like this, until you realize that the she-odor has begun to emanate from your own body as well. I wish I could die like this, as a girl. (p. 47)
I take these comments to be expressions of the physical and psychological disturbance she feels at the changes occurring both within her own body and in the social role she’s expected to play as a Japanese woman. She seems unimpressed with the examples of both her female teacher and her mother and dreads being confined to a similar fate. I do hope that my reading of her repulsion as masking disdain for sexist constraints imposed upon women, rather than actually being a set criticism of women as people, is not too generous! Though this is a big generalization, I do think that a lot of young women struggle with this kind of internalized misogyny and experience it as a very personal defect, which would support my interpretation. Whether it was Dazai’s intent to invoke this internal process, though, I am not certain.
The book’s strength lies in Dazai’s ability to write a story that is both culturally specific and widely relatable. Its about navigating Japanese society and cultural norms as a girl, but it’s also simply about being youthful, restless, and discontent. Some of the schoolgirl’s voice was obscured by the roller-coaster of emotions evoked throughout the text, but perhaps that’s part of the point. Ultimately, I think that enjoyment of Schoolgirl might hinge on one’s desire to revisit (or just visit, if you are a younger reader) both the idealistic highs and despairing lows of adolescence. At this point, as someone who is no longer a teenager but still far from getting all nostalgic about it, I am pretty ambivalent about doing that and so my feeling about the book was a bit ambivalent as well. It’s ironic that this ambivalence is due to Dazai’s success in writing about such a particular emotional and developmental state. While I am short of enthusiastic about Schoolgirl, it was a good introduction to Osamu Dazai, who I am now interested in reading more of. Not a favorite, then, but well worth the read.