Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Subjection of Women


The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor Mill?)

John Stuart Mill, it turns out, was a feminist. His wife, Harriet Taylor, probably gave him some of the ideas for this book; she way well have helped him write it.

While Mary Wollstonecraft tried to convince her audience that women would become better if they were treated better, Mill asserted that it didn't matter whether or not women as clever or as moral as men; being human beings, they should have equal rights regardless of individual qualities.

I enjoyed reading this book, and actually finished it a few weeks ago, but I'm afraid I haven't got anything terribly worthwhile to say about it. It's a good selection for this years Feminist Classics project, though, and you should read it. The edition I read was quite helpful and included a collection of reactions from Mill's contemporaries, though I would have liked to see information on Harriet Taylor as well.

Week 9: All Clear


All Clear, by Connie Willis

I zoomed through this second half of the story that started in Blackout. Three historians are trapped in London during the Blitz--or is it four? And is the reason that they're trapped because the space-time continuum has been damaged, or something else that they haven't thought of?

The story is riveting, and Willis jumps between about six different viewpoints to give you little pieces of the puzzle. The author's tendency to take a very, very long time to tell her story is evident here, but the ride is awfully enjoyable, so don't mind. It's very worth the time.

All the talk of Agatha Christie novels put me in the mood to read a few, and to re-read (for the zillionth time) Willis' time-travel comedy, To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Week 9: We've Got Issues


We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication, by Judith Warner

Judith Warner started out to write a rant about the overdiagnosis and overmedication of children in this degenerate age of pressure to perform. She was going to denounce perfectionistic parents who gave their normal, if boisterious, children drugs in order to get better grades out of them or give them an edge in a competitive world. The trouble was, she discovered that the story everyone knows isn't actually true. So We've Got Issues is her effort at documenting the actual state of modern child psychiatry--and I'd recommend it to anyone struggling with these difficult issues.

We hear a lot of things like "Kids didn't have ADHD or bipolar disorder when we were kids!"--but that's not really true. A lot of children were simply labeled stupid or bad or delinquent. Children with severe mental issues were not seen because they were often simply institutionalized--for years at a time--and given Haldol or other strong tranquilizers; if they stayed at home, they did not usually attend school. They were invisible, but they existed. Now they are much more visible, so it seems as though this is a new problem that must be caused by a sick society or bad parents, but that is not the case at all.

That isn't to say that things are wonderful now. Most children who suffer from mental disorders are not treated, or are not treated well. The psychiatric profession has undermined its own credibility by getting too friendly with drug companies. There has been a lot of progress, but boy is there a long way to go. Still, Warner's descriptions of new treatments offer a lot of hope, if we can just figure out a way to get the treatments to the people who need them.

Warner's chapters on parents' struggles to help their children interested me a lot. We talk about parents who go for the easy fix, who drug their children so they won't have to parent them, but in fact the vast majority of parents will go to superhuman efforts to help their children and will only accept medications as a last, hated, resort. It was really interesting to me to see that Warner's data confirmed my own experience that mothers are very reluctant to medicate but will eventually accept it, while fathers really hate it and will often simply refuse to engage at all.

There was also quite a bit about the tendency to blame parents for their child's problems. It's very easy to believe that the only reason a child would develop ADHD or serious mental illness is because of bad parenting. This reaction seems to me to very often be a sort of superstition, or a defense mechanism; if you can believe that these problems only happen to kids with bad parents, they'll never happen to you, because you are (or would be) a good parent, which will keep you safe and in control of the world. This all sounds very familiar to me, because my daughter has severe food allergies, and it's quite common for people to assume that I'm either overprotective and making it up, or overprotective about hygiene, which causes the allergies. It's much less vicious in my case, but it's the same superstition. And yet the more scientific progress we make, the more we find out that allergies and mental problems both seem to have genetic components that interact with the environment in unpredictable ways.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Victorian Literature: Under the Greenwood Tree

Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy

This was recommended to me as the book to read if you want to read Hardy, but don't want your heart ripped to shreds and then stomped on. And in fact I'm glad I read it; it's a nice story, sweet but not overly so, and my heart survived intact.

The story concerns a resident of Mellstock village, one Dick Dewy, a young man who is quite ordinary. He falls in love with the village's schoolmistress, Miss Fancy Day--a bit above him on the social scale. The story of their courtship, with its stumbles and blocks, is interesting because they're both ordinary human beings with virtues and flaws. Fancy isn't really quite the angel Dick thinks she is, but we hope she learns from her mistakes.

This is my fourth Victorian book, so I'm done with the "Sense and Sensibility" category! Yay me.

Week 8: Blackout


Blackout, by Connie Willis

I love Connie Willis' time travel books, which posit a future where Oxford historians travel back in time to study the past. No objects can be carried into the future, and it's a relatively new science that sometimes has unexpected issues arise. So there are no commercial interests; time travel is just for historians with a penchant for discomfort and danger. Willis' previous major time-travel books are Doomsday Book (excellent, very very sad) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (a Victorian comedy with lots of in-jokes about 30's mysteries).

In Blackout, several different historians are in England during the early days of World War II. The story bounces between Dover/Dunkirk, a country manor filled with refugees, London under the Blitz, and a couple of other locations that are a little more mysterious. The historians find themselves trapped, unable to get back to their own Oxford, and the story stops right in the middle because Blackout is really just the first half of a giant novel that got divided in two. The second half, All Clear, is now available and I'm going to go pick it up from the library today! I put off reading Blackout so I wouldn't have to agonize, as I saw many people doing last year when it came out.

Willis is fascinated with the Blitz and WWII, and she really pours a lot of work into this book, making it as realistic and detailed as possible. It's a nice long novel, hard to put down and well worth reading.

Week 8: After the Quake


After the Quake, by Haruki Murasaki

Murasaki is an eminent surrealist Japanese novelist, and I've had some of his books for years, and I mean to read them this year. So I got this particular book from the library; it's not one of the ones I own at all. This is a collection of short stories, all set soon after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The earthquake is nearly always kind of incidental to the stories here. There is a girl who likes bonfires. A man raised in a cult that calls him the son of God spends a day tailing someone he thinks might be his father. Another man meets a giant talking frog who asks for his help in saving Tokyo. That one was my favorite.

I will be reading more Murakami.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Week 7: People of the Book

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

I've read a couple of Geraldine Brooks' nonfiction books about women's lives in the Middle East, and I was curious to see what she would do in a novel. This is an art history/literature mystery novel, which I always enjoy if it isn't all Da Vinci Code-y. It's definitely a cut (or two) above Dan Brown, and I really liked it.

The plot centers around a real illuminated book: the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest known Jewish medieval books, which was made in Spain before Ferdinand and Isabella threw all the Jews out in 1492. It eventually ended up in Sarajevo, where it has twice been saved from destruction by Muslim librarians, so it is a national symbol of tolerance as well as one of the most valued books in the Bosnian collection.

Brooks takes all the known history of the Haggadah and makes up a story for it, alternating between the protagonist, Hanna--an Australian book conservator--and chapters that move progressively further back in the book's history. Although Hanna is somewhat difficult to like, it's a pretty good story.


Week 7: At Home


At Home: a Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

I've been looking forward to getting my hands on Bryson's new book, which is a sort of mish-mashy history of homes, comfort, and private life in general. It didn't disappoint me; although you can't trust him to be exactly accurate on every point, Bryson never fails to entertain and do some informing as well. His trademark style is pleasant to read and abounds in descriptive adverbs that add humor and interest. (Though I did feel that he used grimly an awful lot this time around.) Some of his favorites are cherishably, staggeringly, alluringly, and curiously.

Bryson's general plan is to wander through his Norfolk house--a former rectory--room by room, and write about topics that are generally connected with what the room is for. So in the dressing room, he talks about the cotton trade and corsets. The study, which is sometimes invaded, gets a long and horrifying discourse on mice, rats, and other critters, and the bathroom chapter features plenty of enthralling information about London sewers.

The house was built in 1851, the same year as the Great Exhibition, and that gets plenty of play, as well as anything else that happened in that eventful year. Although Bryson talks about homes in many periods of history, and wanders over to America at times, England in the Victorian era gets the most space, with the Georgians coming in second because they loved architecture so much. There's plenty to talk about, and it's a fun book.

The main result of reading it is to make you very, very grateful for your nice comfy bed, your central heating and modern plumbing, and your general lack of coal fires, arsenic-soaked wallpaper, and cholera plagues.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Week 6: A Room With a View


A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster

It's a long time since I read about Lucy and George, and I felt like revisiting them. And you know what, this book is just lovely to read. It's well-written and interesting and full of undercurrents to think about.

It put me in the mood to watch the movie again too!

Week 6: Dectection Unlimited


Detection Unlimited, by Georgette Heyer

I love to read Heyer's Regency novels, and I love cozy British mysteries, so of course I wanted to read Heyer's mysteries. They were well-regarded, but this one was terrible. I'm quite disappointed. It took me days to slog through, it wasn't interesting, and it was hard to tell half the characters apart. Don't bother, find something else to read!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Take a Chance: Are Women Human?


Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers

This choice was generated by "What Shall I Read Next?", a website that will recommend books to you based on the last thing you read. I entered War in Heaven, by Charles Williams, and this short book of Sayers essays was on the list, which consisted mainly of titles by Inklings.

The title is, of course, a bit ironic. There are only two essays in the book, both asserting that women are simply human beings, just as men are, and that therefore they should be treated no differently. Each has personhood as an individual, and assigning classifications is utterly pointless except for the most transient purposes.

The essays are nicely witty and pointed in the usual Sayers style, and very worth reading. I'd never heard of them before, so I'm glad that the Take a Chance challenge pointed me to the book. Maybe for my next choice for this challenge, I ought to try to move out of England!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin


Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I read this for my American history project, but I figure it counts as Victorian literature too!

Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as anti-slavery propaganda for white Northerners who, I suppose, didn't know much about the realities of slavery. It was a huge success and was very influential for the abolitionist cause, though now its Victorian sentimentality comes off as melodramatic and overdone. Uncle Tom, who was written as a Christ figure, has gotten something of an unfortunate reputation as a weak and servile character. (Yes, he's not very realistic, but neither is anyone else!) "Uncle Tom" became a stock character in minstrel shows, with little resemblance to Stowe's virtuous Christian protagonist.

As a novel, the characters are types and the whole thing comes off as unlikely. But accuracy wasn't the point anyway; she wanted to inflame feeling against slavery and so she succeeded at her task.

Interestingly, for much of the novel, slave owners are depicted as more virtuous than you might expect--certainly better than real slave narratives of the time showed. Nearly all of the slave owners are kind, well-meaning people; I suppose so that the targeted white readers would sympathize with them and not feel attacked, and so that Stowe could make one of her main points: no matter how kind an owner was, a slave could never feel safe. Those kind owners fall into debt, or hardship, or they get angry or they die, and then all the nice promises are meaningless if they aren't backed up with legal documentation. And anyhow, everyone would prefer freedom in poverty to slavery in comfort. So she wanted to really emphasize that even when slavery was used in an "ideal" way, as slave-owners often insisted was nearly always the case, it was still an awful system. I think she didn't want to give anyone a way to say "Well, if we just curb the abuses, it would work,"--she wanted to show that even the best possible case was hopelessly corrupt and wrong.

The book is full of unusually well-treated slaves brought up with educations by their owners (not usually their actual parents, for the separation of families is a major theme), who are then sold off to fates unknown. The plight of women is of particular concern; Stowe makes the girls' expected destinies very clear--though of course she never says anything outright. Her female characters are the ones who courageously figure out ways to run away from slavery and save their children, while Uncle Tom stays behind to bear the consequences. He could run, but he chooses not to in order to save others.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is really worth reading for the insight it provides into pre-Civil War America. I don't really think it's a work of great literature, but that wasn't what Stowe was trying to do. Reading it with its context and goal in mind is the way to do it. (Which puts me in mind of The Pilgrim's Progress, another popular classic that is classic because it was popular and hugely influential, not because it's a great literary work.)

For a realistic look at slavery, I would recommend the two classic autobiographical works Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.