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review 2019-02-02 03:11
A love letter to libraries
The Library Book - Susan Orlean

Right after I joined the library where I'm currently working the (now retired) Library Manager gave me an ARC (Advanced Reader's Copy) of a book that he said I'd "really like". Since we had known each other less than a week I took it at face value and slipped it into my desk drawer. Three months later and this book (now in published form) was returned by a patron who told me that it was one I just had to read. This recommendation coupled with the fact that the book still has several hundred people waiting on hold to read it made me dig back in my drawer for my copy. Almost immediately I started drafting an apology letter to the man who saw me coming from a mile away.

 

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is a love letter to literature, librarians, and most especially to libraries. The book begins with a brief glimpse of what happened on April 29, 1986 and one of the (alleged) main characters. This is a bit of a teaser to the mystery explored in the book but in my opinion the next chapter is the real heart of the book. Orlean takes us back to when she was a young library patron who had a special routine of visiting her local library with her mom and the visceral reaction she had many years later when entering the Los Angeles Central Library with her own son for the first time. During a tour of the historic building, she learned of the devastating fire that occurred there on April 29, 1986 and how the man accused was never charged. Hundreds of thousands of materials were either outright destroyed by the blaze or damaged by the smoke or water used to douse the flames. The cost to repair and replace these items (as well as repair the building) was in the millions and it still holds the record for the largest library fire in U.S. history. Orlean was intrigued by the crime and why no one was brought to justice. She spent 4 years tracing back through the history of the public library in Los Angeles (including all of the City Librarians) before she fully delved into the one and only suspect, Harry Peak, an aspiring actor who boasted to friends that he had been there on the day of the fire and more importantly that he was the one that set it off. 

 

If you're not particularly interested in the fire or the whoddunit aspect there's plenty more here to sink your teeth into because Orlean goes behind the scenes of the library to talk about its various departments, infrastructure, and ultimately what it's really like to work in a public library. She covers such topics as holds fulfillment, collection development (like what to do with hundreds of maps), working with the homeless, and working within a tight budget to bring programs to the masses. I took copious notes after reading this book but looking back I realize how the majority of them would completely spoil this book for you. As I went in totally blind (and loved every moment of it) I think you guys would benefit by doing the same. Try and get your hands on this one but be aware that you'll probably be waiting for a while to get it from your local library.

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2019-01-05 03:07
Written with the Pen Grown in Her Heart
The Good Women of China - Xinran

Wow. 

 

Raw, sad, lyrical and candid -- my first book of 2019, and already a huge winner; I'm pretty sure this will be one of my overall top reads of the year.  I can see few ways how this reading experience can possibly be topped.

 

Xinran tells the stories of some of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of women whose stories she listened to (and, if allowed by both the women themselves and by the Party censors, broadcast) for eight years as a Nanjing radio presenter on a nightly program called Words on the Night Breeze; a combination of recorded interviews and live talk radio with musical interludes.  As a young reporter she had come to realize that, conditioned by centuries of physical and emotional suppression (far from being abolished, made even worse by the Cultural Revolution), complete and unbridled male dominance in society, and the associated deep-set mysogyny which Chinese women had even swallowed themselves, hide and hair, her countrywomen had practically no sense of self -- nor any sense how to talk about their feelings, experience, traumas, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and injuries.  Indeed, as the Chinese characters explained on the book's back cover (see below) make clear, even the words "female" and "woman", "mother" or "girl" are not anywhere near synonymous in writing: All female substantives are "female" with a specific function: a "woman" is "a female whose job is to do the housework", a "mother" is "a kind female" (or "a female with kindness"), a "girl" is "a female with kindness and [a sense of] tradition (or, since the second part of the sequence is identical with "mother", "a female with a sense of tradition who is attached to her mother") -- and lastly, if a "female" has a son attached to her, the result is "good".

 

In this book, which she wrote after having moved to England in 1997, Xinran takes her readers on her voyage of discovery of the lives of some of the women she met during those eight years of reporting; as well as her discovery of herself and her role as a reporter.  We meet, inter alia:

 

* The girl who kept a fly as a pet (and if you think that's a euphemism for poverty and hunger, think again: the title of the chapter hints at the fact that a baby fly's feet were the sole soft touches this girl ever felt after having "become a woman" at age 11, from which time she was brutally raped daily by her own father -- so much so that she took to making herself dangerously ill, in order to be able to spend time at the hospital, where she was better (though not perfectly) protected ... until she died of septicemia at age 17);

* The scavenger woman who, though well-educated, lived off scraps and in a ramshackle hut near Xinran's radio station just so she could be near her son -- an important man whose threshold she had not even crossed a single time;

* The mothers who endured an earthquake and saw their loved ones perish before their eyes, painfully and in one instance, over a period of two weeks (a young teenage girl, her lower body squashed high up in the ruins of a broken wall, with rescue coming too late to reach her and rescue equipment falling woefully short of what would have been needed); in another instance, as a double suicide of husband and daughter, after the daughter had been gang-raped by strangers in a tent near the rescue facility where she had been taken -- and yet, these mothers had built a new community with the children made orphans by the earthquake and were giving all their love to these orphaned children;

* Xinran's mother and several other women, all left emotionally and often also economically destitute as a result of their lives having been broken to pieces by the Cultural Revolution (no matter whether for reasons of their education, foreign contacts and financial independence, or similar reasons for being considered "counter-revolutionaries", or because their youthful idealism for the new system was brutally abused and ground to shreds, and they were tossed, literally within a single day and by the Party itself, into loveless and abusive marriages with high officials);

* The childhood Xinran herself cannot leave behind and which, likewise, was replete with physical and emotional abuse for being the daughter and granddaughter of suspected "counter-revolutionaries"; as well as several other women of Xinran's generation with similarly devastating experiences;

* The Guomindang general's daughter, who grew up with a Chinese family after her parents had had to flee to Taiwan without being able to take her (then five years old) with them, and who was driven into insanity by a combination of seeing her foster family being tortured on her account and the torture and abuse that she herself suffered after having been "outed"; and

* The women of Shouting Hill (a remote, barren hillside area to the West of Xian), the encounter with whom was the last straw for Xinran to leave China and life as she knew it behind and seek a different life for herself and her son in London. 

 

 

On this last group, Xinran writes:

"Women there [in Shouting Hill] are valued solely for their utility: as reproductive tools, they are the most precious items of trade in the villagers' lives.  The men do not hesitate to barter two or three girl children for a wife from another village. [...] After they become mothers, they in turn are forced to give up their own daughters.  Women in Shouting Hill have no rights of property or inheritance.

 

The unusual social practice of one wife being shared by several husbands also occurs in Shouting Hill.  In the majority of those cases, brothers from extremely poor families with no females to barter buy a common wife to continue the family line.  By day they benefit from the food the woman makes and the household chores she does, by night they enjoy the woman's body in turn. [...]

 

They [the women] lead an extremely hard life.  In their one-roomed cave houses, of which half the space is occupied by a kang [earthen bed heated from below], their domestic tools consist of a few stone slabs, grass mats and crude clay bowls; an earthenware pitcher is regarded as a luxury item for the 'wealthy families'.  Children's toys or any household items specifically for the use of women are unthinkable in their society.  [...]

 

It is the women who greet the dawn in Shouting Hill: they have to feed the livestock, sweep the yard and polish and repair the blunt, rusty tools of their husbands.  After seeing their men off to work on the land, they have to collect water from an unreliable stream on the far side of a mountain two hours' walk away, carrying a pair of heavy buckets on their shoulders.  When cogon grass is in season, the women also have to climb the hill to dig up the roots for use as cooking fuel.  In the afternoon, they take food to their menfolk; when they come back they spin thread, weave cloth, and make clothes, shoes and hats for the family.  All through the day, they carry small children almost everywhere with them on their arms or on their backs.

 

In Shouting Hill, 'use' is the term employed for men wanting to sleep with a woman.  [...]  After being 'used', the women tidy up and attend to the children while the men lie snoring.  Only with nightfall can the women rest, because there is no light to work in.  When I tried to experience a very small part of these women's lives through joining in their daily household tasks for a short while, I found my faith in the value of life severely shaken. [...]

 

I noticed a bizarre phenomenon among the female villagers of Shouting Hill: when they reached their teens or thereabouts their gait suddenly became very strange.  They began walking with their legs spread wide apart, swaying in an arc with each step.  There was no trace of this tendency in the little girls, though.  For the first few days I puzzled over this riddle, but did not like to enquire too deeply into it.  I hoped to find the answer in my own way.

 

It was my habit to make sketches of the scenery I thought typified each place I was reporting on.  No colour was necessary to depict Shouting Hill, a few lines were enough to bring out its essential qualities.  While I was sketching, I noticed some small piles of stones that I could not recall having seen before.  Most of them were in out-of-the-way spots.  On closer inspection, I found blackish-red leaves under the stones.  Only cogon grass grew in Shouting Hill; where had those leaves come from?

 

I examined the leaves carefully: they were mostly about ten centimetres long and five centimetres wide.  They had clearly been cut to size, and seemed to have been beaten and rubbed by hand.  Some of the leaves were slightly thicker than the others, and were moist to the touch, with a fishy odour.  Other leaves were extremely dry from the pressure of the rocks and the burning heat of the sun; they were not brittle but very tough, and they too had the same strong salty smell.  I had never seen leaves like this before.  I wondered what they were used for and decided to ask the villagers.

 

The men said, 'Those are women's things!' and refused to say any more.

 

The children shook their heads in bewilderment, saying: 'I don't know what they are, Mama and Papa say we're not to touch them.'

 

The women simply lowered their heads silently.

 

When Niu'er [the girl with whom Xinran was staying] noticed that I was puzzled about the question of these leaves, she said: 'You'd best ask my granny, she'll tell you.'  Niu'er's grandmother was not so very old, but early marriage and childbearing had made her part of the village's senior generation.

 

Her grandmother slowly explained that the leaves were used by women during their periods.  When a girl in Shouting Hill had her first period, or a woman had just married into the village, she would be presented with ten of these leaves by her mother or another woman of the older generation.  These leaves were gathered from trees very far away.  The older women would teach the girls what to do with the leaves.  First, each leaf had to be cut to the right size, so that it could be worn inside trousers.  Then small holes had to be pricked into the leaves with an awl, to make them more absorbent.  The leaves were relatively elastic and their fibres very thick, so they would thicken and swell as they absorbed the blood.  In a region where water was so precious, there was no alternative but to press and dry the leaves after each use.  A woman would use her ten leaves for her period month after month, even after childbirth.  Her leaves would be her only burial goods.

 

I exchanged some sanitary towels I had with me for a leaf from Niu'er's grandmother.  My eyes filled with tears as I touched it: how could this coarse leaf, hard even to the hand's touch, be put in a woman's tenderest place?  It was only then that I realised why the women of Shouting Hill walked with their legs splayed: their thighs had been repeatedly rubbed raw and scarred by the leaves.

 

There was another reason for the strange gait of the women in Shouting Hill, which shocked me even more. [...]

 

The doctor who had come with us told me that one of the villagers had asked him to examine his wife, as she had been pregnant many times but never managed to carry a child to full term.  With the villager's special permission, the doctor examined the woman, and was dumbfounded that she had a prolapsed womb.  The friction and infection of many years had hardened the part of the womb that was hanging outside to cutin, tough as a callus.  The doctor simply could not imagine what had caused this.  Surprised by his reaction, the woman told him disapprovingly that all the women in Shouting Hill were like this.  The doctor asked me to help him confirm this; several days later I confirmed the truth of that woman's words after much surreptitious observation of the village women as they relieved themselves.  Prolapsed wombs were another reason why the women walked with their legs spreadeagled.

 

In Shouting Hill, the course of nature is not resisted, and family planning an alien concept.  Women are treated as breeding machines, and produce one child a year or as many as three every two years.  [...]

 

I saw many pregnant women in Shouting Hill, but there was no sense of eager anticipation of a child among them or their men.  Even while heavily pregnant, they had to labour as before and be 'used' by their men, who reasoned that 'only children who resist being squashed are strong enough'.  I was appalled by all this, especially at the thought of shared wives being 'used' by several men throughout their pregnancy.  [...]

 

The evening after I had established that prolapsed wombs were an everyday phenomenon in Shouting Hill, I was unable to sleep for a very long time.  I lay on the earthen kang weeping for these women, who were of my generation and of my time.  That the women of Shouting Hill had no concept of modern society, let alone any awareness of the rights of women, was a small comfort; their happiness lay in their ignorance, their customs and the satisfaction of believing that all women in the world lived as they did. [...]

 

On the day I left Shouting Hill, I found that the sanitary towels I had given to Niu'er's grandmother as a souvenir were stuck in her sons' belts; they were using them as towels to wipe away sweat or protect their hands."

Atwood's Handmaid's Tale come alive, and then some ...

 

Obviously Shouting Hill is an extreme example even within China, distinguished from other parts of the country, as Xinran highlights, in part by its extreme remoteness, which prevents the women living there from learning anything that might induce them to question, ever so tacitly, their own living conditions.  (Or prevented them -- I have no idea whether the practices described by Xinran are still going on today; shocking though they are even for the late 1990s.)  And I'm sure that at least some of the hundreds of millions of women in China, even some of those of Xinran's and her mother's generations, lead less traumatic or even happy lives.  But from Xinran's account, there is no question that the lives she describes are not rare exceptions; and given the severe reticence drummed into any Chinese woman from long before she can even walk and talk, it is anybody's guess how many there are who simply have not and never will speak out -- or who may look happy and successful but in reality are far from that (and Xinran provides examples of such women as well).

 

In the book's prologue, she talks about a mugging attempt in London, with the mugger trying to take away her handbag, which contained the only manuscript copy of this book then in existence.  She fought her assailant tooth and nail, even at the risk of being killed, and comments on a policeman's later question whether her book was more important than her life:

"Of course, life is more important than a book.  But in so many ways my book was my life.  It was my testimony to the lives of Chinese women, the result of many years' work as a journalist. [...] I wasn't sure that I could put myself through the extremes of feeling provoked by writing the book again.  Reliving the stories of the women I had met had been painful, and it had been harder still to order my memories and find language adequate to express them.  In fighting for that bag, I was defending my feelings, and the feelings of Chinese women.  The book was the result of so many things which, once lost, could never be found again.  When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, and the route is different every time."

And in the epilogue, she concludes:

"I recalled what Old Chen had once said to me: 'Xinran, you should write this down.  Writing is a kind of repository and can help create a space for the accommodation of new thoughts and feelings.  If you don't write these stories down, your heart will be filled up and broken by them'.  At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this.  I couldn't risk abandoning my son, or the women who received help and encouragement through my radio programme.  In England, the book became possible.  It was as if a pen had grown in my heart."

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text 2019-01-02 19:41
Reading progress update: I've read 87 out of 240 pages.
The Good Women of China - Xinran

Wow.  What a New Year's Eve book lottery pick to start the year with.   I started this this morning, thinking I might just read a chapter or so.  Two hours later I had read well over a third of the book and only managed to tear myself away because I had to.

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review 2018-12-15 22:06
Fear
Fear: Trump in the White House - Bob Woodward

This book is somehow simultaneously alarming and unsurprising. The latter, I suppose, must come from everything I have already read and heard about the inner (mis)workings of the Trump White House. One of the most fascinating things to come about when this book was poised to be released was Bob Woodward's published interview with Donald Trump. The opening of the book notes that Trump declined to be interviewed for it. In the interview, Trump initially claimed that no one had told him about the book, the whole time Woodward was attempting to set up an interview. Then during the course of the interview, it became clear that this was a lie. That captures so much of the way Trump operates.

 

In the interview, Trump claimed that the book was going to be flawed because it lacked his input. But Woodward is thorough and even-handed. Though I have to say, when the book ended, I thought, "Wait, that's <i>it</i>?" I'm not sure how I expected the book to conclude, but it felt as though it just stopped, and everything is so.... Unsettled. I guess that's one of the possible downsides of reporting on real life. I only hope there are still people in the White House averting disaster.

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review 2018-09-29 02:16
Not the same, I promise
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath - Leslie Jamison

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison at first glance is remarkably similar to my last post and in retrospect I probably shouldn't have read them back-to-back. (If for no other reason, than my own mental health.) In my defense, my library holds always seem to come all at once so this was just coincidental. This book. however, is more memoir than anything else…although I'd also lump it into the literary commentary category. The author takes an almost journalistic look at addiction and recovery. While Jamison does discuss the 12 Steps, she emphasizes that most need more than the 12 Steps which promotes complete abstinence in order to recover. Medication and counseling in combination with a recovery program that advises group meetings is essential to long-term sobriety. She talks in-depth about her own recovery journey and how it doesn't always end neatly with full sobriety or even one linear line to sobriety as relapses will and do occur. The first part, in truth, focuses quite heavily on "drunk writers" using alcohol as a creative crutch and how Jamison herself felt that without booze she would not be interesting enough or creative enough to write. Along with that was her preoccupation with love helped along by an addict's natural self-centeredness. It is this inflated self-centered attitude which Jamison believes is the fuel for an addict. The addiction narrative is unchanging and that's the point. It doesn't need to be new and interesting (not necessary or even possible really) because it's the sharing with others that makes all the difference when all anyone wants is to not feel alone. Maybe because I read this on the heels of Russell's book or maybe because it didn't necessarily reveal anything new to me but this was only an okay book in my opinion. If this was the very first book someone had read on this subject then I believe it would be deemed excellent but for anyone who has read extensively in this vein it didn't really cover any new ground. 5/10


That isn't to say there weren't some interesting quotes. Here are two that jumped out at me:

 

Most addicts don't live in barren white cages - though some do once they've been incarcerated - but many live in worlds defined by stress of all kinds, financial and social and structural: the burdens of institutional racism and economic inequality, the absence of a living wage. - pg 154

Most addicts describe drinking or using as filling a lack…you drunk to fill the lack, but the drinking only deepens it. - pg 155

What's Up Next: Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Star Trek: Destiny #3: Lost Souls by David Mack

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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