Booked All Week

and next week, too

Catching Up, Part 2

with 13 comments

In A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian Islamic feminist scholar in America, details the events of her childhood shaped primarily by the events of the 1952 revolution and her academic experience at a British college. I learned a lot of valuable history from this memoir, which is especially interesting and pertinent given what’s happening in Egypt today. I was especially interested in Ahmed’s college experience and the dawning of her interest in colonialism and post-colonial theory and feminism. This memoir was incredibly insightful, but I didn’t feel I got to know its author in any personal sense and this put me off a bit. I’m keeping an eye out for Ahmed’s more straightforward non-fiction work, particularly Women and Gender in Islam, which I think I’ll get along with a little better.

World of Wonders concludes the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (here’s what I thought of the first two books in the series, Fifth Business and The Manticore). This trilogy is completely brilliant, and introduced me to one of my new favorite authors who, luckily for me, was fairly prolific. World of Wonders shines a spotlight on the most mysterious of the trilogy’s characters, Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster). Paul grew up in a religiously oppressive household with a “mad” mother and was abducted by a member of a traveling circus as a child. There, he learns some of life’s hardest lessons, and when he’s able to leave the circus and move into the world of theater, he learns to hone his skills of manipulation and becomes the world’s leading illusionist. This story is told through a series of conversations with Dunstan Ramsay and Liesl (both characters from the first two books) and a film crew which has hired Eisengrim to portray a famous, deceased magician in a documentary for the BBC. By asking him to provide “subtext” for the film, they are able to tease out the history of a very complex and secretive character who, in many ways, provides the key to understanding the events of the trilogy at large. In some ways, I admit, I might have liked Eisengrim’s past to remain a mystery, as I don’t think anything could have really matched what I’d imagined that history to be. But Davies presented the story with the same subtle but invigorating philosophical approach that I’ve come to expect from him, and did it beautifully. Though Fifth Business remains my favorite book of the three, World of Wonders made a fitting end to a very captivating and original series.

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives is a collection of short stories, essays, poems, and photographs exploring the self-expression of African American women. I read this book in one sitting, and loved it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about the importance of reclaiming black women’s history in the United States and the whitewashing of feminism. There’s also some really great writing about black women’s friendships, artist and activist communities, the radical act of love and the true meaning of solidarity. The image of woman, and black woman in particular, has long been tarnished with the worry and discomfort of an insecure and prejudiced society; for this reason, it is important that black women’s voices are not ignored, that their self-image and creativity is recognized and validated. And anyway, you really can’t go wrong with any collection that includes writing by both bell hooks and Audre Lorde šŸ™‚

I had so much fun reading Nymphomania: A History. The history of nymphomania, I learned, is a history of western anxiety about women’s sexuality; the arbitrary meaning of the word nymphomania is flexible, and able to encompass the particular concerns of different generations with distinct ideas about women, sex, how much sex is too much for women, and what kinds of sex are appropriate for women to enjoy. It was horrifying to learn about how women’s sex drives were pathologized in the Victorian era, and…(UM, I THINK A TRIGGER WARNING MIGHT BE APPROPRIATE HERE)…”treated” with cauterization, bleedings of the uterus by leeches, and institutionalization. EEEEEK. It was interesting to see how women’s sexual behavior was, and is, deemed appropriate or not based on their class status and race, and how these ideas have been changed, but not been done away with, by the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century. I only wish that the book was a little longer. Each section felt brief, and I would have liked more detail. There were also some big chronological gaps between the different sections that could have been filled. Ultimately, though, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

I read both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello a few years ago, and kind of hated them both, mostly on account of plot events. I held out hope for Disgrace, based on the fact that it seems to be most people’s favorite Coetzee, but wasn’t much happier with it. Mostly because I had no sympathy for the disgraced protagonist, David Lurie, at all. He’s a South African college professor who has a terribly coercive “affair” with one of his students, refuses to “reform his character,” and is fired (good). He goes to live with his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside, but their already tense relationship becomes even more strained when three men break into their home, beat him up, and rape Lucy. He is frustrated by how she deals with the emotional aftermath of the rape, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to change her life and move somewhere he considers safer. In so doing, a host of racial South African power dynamics come into play in Lucy’s community and each must deal with their “disgrace” in their own way. There’s an interesting story here, I know, but as I said…I really hated David Lurie and that completely influenced my reading of this book. There were moments when I was able to appreciate Coetzee’s writing style, but I was bothered by the content of the writing itself. I’m ready to say that J.M. Coetzee just isn’t for me.

And with that…I am leaving town for a few weeks tomorrow. This means I probably won’t be posting for a while, and when I get back, you can expect a few more catch up posts. I can’t wait to get back into posting and commenting on other people’s blogs regularly, but am equally excited for a little vacation šŸ™‚ I hope all your summers are off to a great start, and I’ll read y’all soon!

13 Responses

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  1. Wow, what a fantastic list of books! I’ve had A Border Passage recommended to me a few times but I’m much more interested here in Flat-Footed Truths and Nymphomania: A history. Both sound fantastic! Too bad about Coetzee.

    Also, it’s too bad you’re heading out of NY just as I’m heading in!


    May 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    • You would LOVE Flat-Footed Truths and Nymphomania, they are just your style.

      I knooowwww! It would have been so much fun to get together! I’m sure our paths will cross again some day šŸ™‚

      Emily Jane

      May 17, 2011 at 11:15 pm

  2. Oh, Nymphomania looks sooooo fascinating! I have to read that! Medicalization of women’s sexuality is always fun for my brain. (And by fun I mean angry-making.)


    May 18, 2011 at 1:20 am

  3. I had to suffer through Disgrace for a class and couldn’t stand it. None of the characters were remotely likeable and I couldn’t relate to them at all.

    I’ll have to try Davis! And Nymphomania sounds great, too!

    Have a great vacation šŸ™‚


    May 28, 2011 at 9:17 am

    • Thanks Bina!
      It’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one to dislike Disgrace. While reading, I just couldn’t fathom why it was so popular.
      I’d love it if I could convince you to try Davies. He’s one of my new favorite authors this year…he’s a subtle writer but his stories are so mysterious and fantastic. And Nymphomania is a no-brainer. You’d love it!

      Emily Jane

      June 8, 2011 at 5:17 pm

  4. Interesting assortment of books here, Emily Jane. Ironically, I was hoping you could help persuade me on both Leila Ahmed and Coetzee–but you seem about as evenly divided on them as other people in general (they seem to get a lot of love or meh reactions, esp. Coetzee [although he gets hate mixed in with the mehs from time to time, I think]). Hope you’re enjoying your break!


    June 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    • Yeah, sorry Richard, that persuasion won’t be coming from me. Definitely my least favorite books of the group (Coetzee more than Ahmed, but still). And thanks! Internet access is steady again, so blogging is back on.

      Emily Jane

      June 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm

  5. Nice review for the last book in the Deptford Trilogy. I just purchased the Fifth Business for $2 at a used book store today having heard good things from others. Although I was a little annoyed because I went to a 2nd used bookstore right after and they had the entire trilogy in one book for $4.

    I’ll ditto everyone else and say Nymphomania caught my attention too. Thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention.


    June 12, 2011 at 3:14 am

    • Thanks! That same thing happened to me too, actually, with the Salterton Trilogy by the same author…bought Mixture of Frailties, not even realizing it was the third in a trilogy, before finding the whole set in one book later on for the same price. Ah, well. Enjoy Fifth Business!

      Yes, everything about Nymphomania is attention-grabbing. When used-book shopping I tend to stick with stuff I’ve heard about and have been planning to read for a while, but even though it was totally new to me I knew I had to read it immediately. So you’re very welcome! I hope it falls into many more hands šŸ™‚

      Emily Jane

      June 12, 2011 at 5:20 am

  6. I have heard a lot about ‘disgrace’. In fact, in addition to Summertime, I have it on my top 100 books to be read. Some books aren’t just for us. And it’s sad the dissociation between content and style couldn’t be done here.

    Nana Fredua-Agyeman

    October 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    • Yes, it’s a shame. I hear about it all the time too and, though I didn’t like it, at least now I know what it’s all about.

      Emily Jane

      October 9, 2011 at 1:13 am

  7. […] Nymphomania: A History, by Carole Groneman […]

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