Archive for August 2011
God Dies by the Nile, Edison’s Eve, Subject to Debate, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Old Man Goya
Oh, my! WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MONTH OF JULY?! I completely missed it, somehow, and am a bit upset to see that I will now, for the first time, have one full month of archives left blank. Oh, well. Life: it takes over sometimes. Moving on, I guess!
I read this for the Feminist Classics project last month (ahem, a month late!) and it felt good to lighten that load with a short novel. God Dies by the Nile tells the story of a rural Egyptian village riddled with corrupt politicians and a family of peasant women who must be constantly on guard against predatory religious and government officials. The peasants are largely illiterate and uneducated, which leaves them with few routes to recourse in the face of social, economic, and sexual exploitation. This book did a good job of illustrating the ways in which very powerful men are able to manipulate religion and politics to their own personal benefit, and the ways in which most men are taught by other men to assert their masculinity through the violent domination of women. It also serves as an important reminder that, though their situations may appear utterly bleak, women and others denied social or political power are not wholly powerless; their victimization should not be furthered by the assumption that they are not capable of taking action against their oppressors, even if their choices are limited to those which make us uncomfortable or appear moral only in the throes of madness brought on by so much suffering. Saadawi’s prose is cyclic, like the turning of a water-wheel (an image often conjured in the text) but it was also a little hard to follow sometimes (translation issue, perhaps?). It wasn’t a favorite, but I’m glad to have read it.
Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life caught my attention with its mysterious title and neat cover art. Happily, I found just as much within the book as outside of it to hold my interest. With Edison’s Eve, Gaby Wood is able to take a subject I never really thought I’d care about–the history of robots and other automatons, basically–and make me itch to learn more. Her premise is that the history of mechanical life is simultaneously a history of human anxiety over what it is exactly that makes us uniquely human, what it is specifically that differentiates the living and the inanimate. She explores this anxiety by focusing on particular stories and machines, like the chess playing “Turk” of the eighteenth century and the mechanical duck of the same era that appeared to digest and excrete its food. I liked her brief discussions of the strange ways in which ambivalent feelings or worries about gender played into the building of the “perfect woman” (an android) and the common doll. However, the last chapter about the Tiny Doll family of small human circus performers felt at least a little bit objectifying even while discussing the objectifying nature of their performance. A second off-putting factor was a notable lack of analysis. Wood provided just enough in the beginning to get across her point, but not enough to drive it home or tie together all of her research. A fascinating book and topic, but problematic execution.
Subject to Debate was the name of the column that Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation throughout most of the 90’s and into the year 2000. Here, over eighty of them are neatly brought together and encapsulate a decades’ worth of eloquent social critique and political analysis on the subjects of feminism, welfare, school vouchers, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and more. Though many of Pollitt’s columns deal with issues that are undeniably dated, they engage with questions and conflicts that have persisted through American culture into today. Pollitt’s contentions remain relevant, her wit transcendent. I nodded my head eagerly in agreement with almost all of what I read in this book, and enjoyed just as much of it. Check it out!
The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir about grief and the experience of grieving. It starts with the sudden death of Joan Didion’s huband Jim Dunne upon their return home from visiting their daughter who has been hospitalized and in a coma for weeks and traces the pained, sometimes deluded thought processes and the swirling emotions that Didion endures in the ensuing weeks of caring for her sick daughter. It is, of course, a very personal piece of writing and I imagine it must have been intensely therapeutic for the author. Luckily for me, though, and knock-on-wood(!), I have yet to experience the kind of loss that Didion writes about, and I had trouble relating to both her as a narrator and to the things she went through. Perhaps this was as much my fault as the reader as it was hers, but we just seemed unable to meet each other half way on this one. I felt a similar disconnect when I read Didion’s Play It As It Lays a few years ago. It’s weird: she’s one of those authors for me (and I’m sure all readers have a few) that I feel like I’m supposed to like, and there isn’t anything WRONG with their writing, but our chemistry’s all off or something and I just DON’T. Maybe next time. Didion fans, which of her books must I try before calling it quits?
Old Man Goya is both a semi-fictional biography of Goya and a memoir of the author, Julia Blackburn. There is a lot we don’t know about the enigmatic artist, and in this short book Blackburn tries to fill in some of those gaps. His missing years are delicately reconstructed in very subtle, believable ways, and Blackburn really delves into what she imagines he must have felt when he found himself suddenly deaf as the result of what would now be an easily curable illness, and the impact of his sense of isolation on his work. Much of what she imagines is informed by her experience with her dying mother, also a painter, and her childhood fascination with Goya. I usually don’t like to mix my history and fiction in reading, but Blackburn is such a beautifully enchanting writer that I’d do it ten times over. My only complaints are that I wished for more of her story so that it was more tightly integrated with her main narrative about Goya and, though she had her reasons for including only photographs of his etching plates, I would have loved so much to have been able to view photos of his finished drawings and paintings while reading. In any case, I found Goya a fascinating subject and will be on the lookout for both books about Goya and his artwork, and other works by Julia Blackburn!
I hope to be around more frequently from now on, but I can’t make any promises yet. I’ve got a bunch of other projects that I’m really focused on right now and that are doing well…perhaps soon I’ll write a non-book oriented post about what they are, and let y’all get to know me a little better…but for now, I’m going to keep pushing through The Second Sex for the Feminist Classics Project (which I’m loving, by the way) and will continue to catch up on all your blogs! Happy reading 🙂