Category: Criticism

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2015. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Between the World and Me

ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBorrowing the conceit that James Baldwin used in his 1963 best-seller The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ meditation on what it means to be black in America takes the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son. This technique allows the work to feel at once deeply personal and widely applicable. Coates shares how his own awareness of his place in society developed, and then contrasts that with how different his son’s upbringing has been. He rejoices in having been able to give his son a better life, and also shares the painful ways in which he has not been able to make his child’s life different, the ways in which he has felt powerless to save or protect his son from the assumptions that always shroud young black men. The best sections include Coates’ thoughts on the role education, formal and informal, has played in his life, and his reflections on what it is like to be a secular black man in a community that has traditionally leaned on religion.

Categories: Memoir

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami 

ISBN 978-0-8166-9198-2

Cover image for The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl StrecherWinona State University professor of Japanese literature Matthew Carl Strecher undertakes an extensive examination of two of the most fascinating stylistic elements present in the works of Haruki Murakami: magic realism, and parallel narratives. The Other World is present from Murakami’s earliest works, right through to his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami traces its evolution. Strecher explains Japanese literary traditions and techniques the Western reader might be unaware of, while also examining Murakami’s works through the lens of European literary theory, including Baudrillard, Derrida, and Barthes. He also contextualizes Murakami’s place within the Japanese literary tradition, even as he characterizes him as a global writer. For those who have read a large portion of Murakami’s work, and want to gain a greater understanding of its significance, Strecher offers a readable scholarly overview.

Categories: Criticsm 

The Inconvenient Indian

ISBN 978-1-4529-4031-1

the-inconvenient-indianIn this sweeping and unconventional history–which was one of the 2015 Canada Reads selections–Thomas King draws examples from the United States and Canada to illustrate the fate of the native peoples of North America since the arrival of European colonizers. King’s work is an informal account rather than an academic history, and his approach involves a healthy dose of humour, which may be off-putting to some readers given the serious nature of the topics he is dealing with. For King, humour is part of how he copes with the darkness of the history he is addressing, and this may help make a difficult topic more accessible. During the Canada Reads event, Craig Kielburger compared it to the humourous approaches used by Rick Mercer and Jon Stewart for raising awareness of current events. The litany of abuses King covers provides a very clear idea of why First Nations and Native Americans might be distrustful of government efforts to improve their current situation. While King is primarily looking back at what has already happened, understanding these issues is also crucial to moving forward.

Categories: Canadian, History

The New Jim Crow

ISBN 978-1-59558-643-8

Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderLaw professor and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration is the most important racial justice issue in America today. Alexander’s rhetorical device is to make a metaphorical comparison between the impacts Jim Crow once had on the lives of black people, and the disproportionate effects of mass incarceration on the African American population today. However, Alexander is careful to acknowledge and point out important differences between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Although she sees significant similarities, she is by no means saying that the two are the same, or should be approached in the same way. Rather, her bold assertion seems designed to illustrate how a system that is intended to be colorblind can, through the conscious or unconscious biased application of discretion, have an outcome that is similar to that of an overtly racist system of control like Jim Crow. The New Jim Crow is also important because it breaks down the differences between the racial hostility and open bigotry that most Americans recognize as racism, and the quieter, more insidious forms of racial bias that are now that primary form of discrimination faced by American minorities.

Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed

ISBN 978-1-250-05293-3

Cover image for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsboredEdited and selected by novelist and essayist Megan Daum, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays by writers about the decision not to have children. Each writer has their own journey to making this choice; some knew this fact about themselves all along, and others came to it more gradually. The essays vary greatly in tone. Some are quiet and introspective, while others are angry or angst-ridden. As a whole, this collection neither disparages parenthood, nor advocates the child-free life, but simply seeks to ease some of the stigma that surrounds the decision by offering a window into the minds of those who have made it, and found it to be the right choice for them. Once inside, it shows that the variety within the group is at least as great as that between those who choose children, and those who chose not to procreate. Within its scope—predominantly female, American writers—the collection offers a varied look at a personal decision loaded down with a great deal of cultural baggage.

Categories: Essays

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2015?

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Reading Lolita in Tehran

Cover image for Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisiby Azar Nafisi

ISBN 0-8129-7106-X

“If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat.”

In 1995, at her wits end with the control the Islamic regime exerted over intellectual life at Iranian universities, American-educated academic Azar Nafisi resigned her post at the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Tehran. But rather than give up teaching altogether, she assembled a group of her best female students, and invited them into her home for a private weekly seminar in Western literature. For two years, seven Iranian women of varying ages and backgrounds met to discuss works such as The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and Washington Square, creating a small oasis of intellectual freedom in the midst of a repressive political climate.

The seven women came from different families of varying religiosity. Some were married, while others were single, or even divorced. We get a sense of their differing circumstances, but Nafisi must necessarily be somewhat vague, or even misleading, in order to protect those who are still in Iran. The women, regardless of their disparate backgrounds, were hungry for literature for its own sake. They did not need that literature to be explicitly political, in fact better not, but they were united in their refusal to let the regime dictate what was or was not worth reading. Behind closed doors, the women are sassy and even sacrilegious. Yassi, the youngest student, and one from a traditional background, snipes “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife,” snarkily paraphrasing Jane Austen’s famous opening line. The dire restrictions of the regime spark rebellion even among the faithful.

After opening with the private class, and a discussion of Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading, Part II steps back in time, to the years immediately after the Islamic revolution, and illuminates the increasingly chilling atmosphere that eventually led Nafisi to depart from public academic life and set up her own private class in her home. Nafisi recounts how the University of Tehran became a battleground for rival political forces, with Communists and Islamists fighting for control of this crucial symbolic space. Interruptions and cancelled classes became the norm as the balance of power shifted towards the radical student organizations. Anyone who has walked around a university campus has seen bulletin boards filled with posters for student groups and events, but in Tehran, “there were reprimands posted about the color of our uniforms, codes of conduct, but never a notice about a talk, a film, or a book.” Literature and learning were forced to take a back seat to current events.

Reading Lolita in Tehran gives a cogent account of the chain of events that slowly stifled intellectual life in Iran, while also acknowledging the extent to which the narrative is a product of time and distance. “In retrospect, when historical events are gathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time,” Nafisi cautions. She left her first academic post at the University of Tehran years earlier, as part of a protest against forcing women to don the veil, a cause which seems hopeless in retrospect. But at that time, it still seemed conceivable that opposition to the requirement could triumph. Using her journals, Nafisi is able to balance the retrospective view with how events felt in the thick of things. For some, the narrative may seem too mired in the personal, but this provides some sense of how it felt to try to go about daily life in the midst of revolution and war.

Indeed, the blurring relationship between the personal and political, and the personal and professional is an important topic here.  A private class under such circumstances creates a relationship among the participants that is deeper and more complex than what typically develops in a classroom. Nafisi finds herself becoming a friend and confidant to her students, in addition to a teacher, and the social aspect of the gathering of people with a common love of literature is an important emotional support beyond mere intellectual stimulation. But if Nafisi accepts these blurring relationships, she rails against the political intrusion on the personal realm:  “At the core of our fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives.” Though Nafisi is resistant here to the intrusion of the political on the personal realm, we also see glimmerings of her later ideas about the importance of the imaginative realm to political freedom, which she more fully expresses in her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination.

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

Cover image for Why I Read by Wendy Lesserby Wendy Lesser

ISBN 978-1-250-06209-3

“When I ask myself why I read literature, I am not really asking about motivation. I am asking what I get from it: what delights have I received over the years, what rewards can I expect to glean.”

As the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, and a novelist in her own right, Wendy Lesser has spent a lot of time thinking about what makes literature great, and what draws us to books again and again. In Why I Read, Lesser takes a personal look at what she seeks in fiction, and expects to gain from the experience of reading. Lesser identifies six characteristics including plot and character, the space between, novelty, authority, grandeur and intimacy, and elsewhere that define the many great books she has read over the course of sixty years.

As the personal pronoun in the title makes clear, Why I Read is an entirely a personal work, but one that balances somewhere between literary memoir and literary criticism. Though Lesser discusses many books, this work is entirely without reference to any of the critics, theorists, or philosophers that have gone before her. Thus Lesser’s work isn’t literary criticism in the academic sense, but more a personal theory of how reading works. Her theories come with numerous caveats and addendums, disclaimers and counter examples. Her willingness to discount her own opinions for the sake of seeming humble threatens to undermine their weight with the reader.

Although she focuses mostly on the “Great Books,” Lesser also makes some detours into genre fiction. While Lesser despises the self-consciousness of James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly its desire to innovate, Why I Read is itself a very self-conscious work, if not in the sense of being concerned with novelty. Rather, the self-consciousness is evident when we see Lesser working hard to justify her love of the less reputable genres of mystery and science fiction. Still, this self-consciousness about literary value raises some interesting insights into genre fiction. Pondering the topic of mysteries Lesser writes, “In the best mysteries, there is always a residue—of doubt, of anxiety, of concern about our social welfare. It is this residue which distinguishes rereadable mysteries from the run-of-the-mill one-timers.”

Despite some decent points, overall Lesser’s discussion is more interesting in the particulars than in generalities. Though I ended with a long list of interesting-sounding books to read, titles which Lesser wrote about with eloquence and passion, the connecting pieces left me unmoved. For every sharp-eyed insight, there are many pages of uncertain pondering and equivocating that made this short book feel remarkably long.

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The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami

Cover image for The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl Strecherby Matthew Carl Strecher

ISBN 978-0-8166-9198-2

 “From the beginning it was clear that two principal elements informed Murakami’s fiction: a focus on some internal being or consciousness that worked with the conscious self, sometimes in concert, other times antagonistically; and the nearly constant presence of a magical “other world” in which this internal being operated. As such, there was always a tension between the metaphysical—indeed, the magical—and the psychological in his work.”

When I first encountered the work of Haruki Murakami in 2012, I was drawn into his novels through my love of two of his primary tools: magic realism and parallel narratives. In The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami, Winona State University professor of Japanese literature Matthew Carl Strecher has turned his attention to examining these elements as manifested by Murakami’s use of the Other World within his narratives. Strecher’s exploration gives the reader a clear idea of how the Other World functions and evolves through Murakami’s body of work, including his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Murakami is easily the most famous Japanese writer in North America, and probably the only Japanese writer many of his North American fans have read. As such, Strecher’s deeper knowledge of the culture and language proves invaluable, as he deftly contextualizes Murakami’s position within the larger Japanese literary world. Indeed, though he characterizes Murakami as a global writer, he is more concerned with how Murakami fits—or doesn’t—into the Japanese literary tradition, than with his place amongst other writers of magic realism. Strecher also highlights Japanese literary techniques at play in Murakami’s work that most Western readers will be unfamiliar with, such as michiyuki, a passage or transition in preparation for death. Similarly, the Japanese tradition of perceiving the presence of kami in the world through the sense of hearing can easily be confused for the madness associated with hearing voices by the Western reader.

In addition to acquainting the Western reader with Japanese literary conventions, Strecher also uses the familiar tools, drawing widely from literary theory, ranging from Baudrillard to Barthes to Derrida. Strecher utilizes the psychological theories of Freud and Jung to assist his interpretations, while acknowledging that they are over simple to explain Murakami’s fictions. The Other World is a manifestation of the metaphysical as well as the psychological, and to reduce it to either one is to strip the nuance from Murakami’s explorations of identity.

Given that this is a scholarly monograph and a work of academic criticism, Strecher is not concerned with spoilers, and ranges widely over Murakami’s body of published work. However, this range allows him to identify patterns and progressions in Murakami’s style and themes over the course of his career in a way that a more narrowly focused work would not. For example, Strecher is able to demonstrate how the Other World, an individual space in Murakami’s early works, begins to open up to the collective, and even have consequences for the real world, beginning with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1994). For Strecher, this seems to be an outgrowth of Murakami’s development from an individualist in a collectivist society into someone who is increasingly concerned with the problems of the society that produced him.

Sweeping and insightful, and distinctly scholarly in tone, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami is most recommended for fans of Murakami who have read most of his work, and perhaps also have some background studying literature and literary theory.

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By Haruki Murakami:

Cover image for Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

 The Strange Library

 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running 

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Brown Girl Dreaming

ISBN 9780399252518

Cover image for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonI received an advance reader copy of this memoir in verse at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this summer. I had been asking publishing house representatives at various booths about books with diverse protagonists, when a lovely rep for Penguin Young Readers excitedly pressed a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into my hands. I’d never read anything by Jacqueline Woodson, and a memoir in verse didn’t really sound like my thing, but the rep’s excitement stuck with me, and I took the book home. Then, in November, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter when the watermelon incident unfolded. I hadn’t yet read Brown Girl Dreaming, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours. Far from being a challenging read, Woodson’s flowing free verse slides down easily, telling the story of a black girl who is born in the North in the 1960s, but grows up at her grandparent’s home in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This beautifully written memoir is both timely and a pleasure to read. I never wrote a review because I didn’t make a single note while I was reading, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Categories: Young Adult, Poetry, Memoir

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

ISBN 9781592407323

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen ForneyShortly before her  thirtieth birthday, artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Worried that medication would damage her creativity and destroy her ability to earn a living as an artist, Forney resisted treatment until she become so depressed she couldn’t function. Marbles chronicles the trial and error process of finding the right medication to treat her illness, while also exploring the relationship between mental illness and creativity that has plagued so many artists. At the same time, she must come to terms the fact that things she once considered part of her personality and identity are in fact symptoms of her disease. Forney’s evocative black and white images capture the experiences of depression and mania in a way that is entirely different from the many prose novels about the subject.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel

My Life in Middlemarch (US)/The Road to Middlemarch (UK)

ISBN 9781482973556

Cover image for My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadOne of my favourite reads of the year, I listened to My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, performed by the unsurpassed Kate Reading, who as far as I am concerned can read all of my audiobooks to me forever. Unfortunately for my blog readers, I almost never review audiobooks, since I don’t make any notes while I’m listening. My Life in Middlemarch combines memoir with literary criticism and biography. Writer Rebecca Mead tracks her long relationship with George Eliot’s famous novel from her first reading at the age of seventeen, to more recent revisitations in middle age. With each reread, it is not Middlemarch that has changed, but Mead, who finds her focus shifting to different aspects of this multifaceted novel as she moves through adulthood. Interspersed with her own memoir and musings are reflections on the life of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans, who herself led a very interesting life that defied social expectations of the period.

Categories: Biography, Memoir, Criticism

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, returned from a humanitarian trip to the Middle East with what initially looked like hepatitis, but which turned out to be Stage IV pancreatic cancer. As she began treatment to slow the disease and hopefully prolong her life, mother and son started trading books, and discussing them when he drove her to medical appointments. Their books become a proxy for important conversations about mortality and end-of-life care, helping them navigate the difficulties of Mary Anne’s final months. Packed with wonderful book recommendations, and a great story about a mother-son relationship, The End of Your Life Book Club is especially recommended for those who agree with Mary Anne, that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Categories: Memoir

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

ISBN 9780062242167

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannThis true crime mystery set in silent film era Hollywood investigates the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, who was killed in his home on the night of February 1, 1922. William J. Mann profiles three actresses who may have been involved in Taylor’s death, including two prominent stars, and reveals the secrets hiding behind Taylor’s cultured facade. Like any true crime writer, Mann believes he has cracked the cold case, but what really sets Tinseltown apart is his grasp of the history and politics of Hollywood. Mann situates Taylor’s murder in the broader context of the scandals that were plaguing the film industry in the 1920s, with particular attention to  the damage control done by Adolph Zukor, the CEO of Famous Players-Lasky, the largest film conglomerate of the period. This is a great pick for film lovers and mystery readers alike.

Categories: True Crime

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2014?

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books

Cover image for The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi by Azar Nafisi

ISBN 978-0-670-02606-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes have been checked against a finalized copy.

“I found it intriguing that he had suggested not that Americans did not understand our books but that they didn’t understand their own. In an oblique way, he made it seem as if Western literature belonged more to the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the inhabitants of the land that had given birth to them. How could this be? And yet it is true that people who brave censorship, jail and torture to gain access to books or music or movies or works of art tend to hold the whole enterprise in an entirely different light.”

The story of Azar Nafisi’s latest work begins at one of the local independent book shops here in Seattle, where she was approached by a nameless young man, also an expatriate Iranian. In the midst of this Mecca for books at the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the young man challenged her, saying that it was useless to talk about books in a country that would never value or understand them in the same way as an Iranian who had faced imprisonment or torture for photocopying thousands of pages from classic works like Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms. The encounter haunted Nafisi for years, driving her to conceive the “republic of imagination,” the land of imaginative knowledge that exists within books and is open, without restriction, to anyone who opens those pages. A place where “the only requirements for entry are an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane.” Nafisi argues passionately for the value and importance of books and “imaginative knowledge” in a society that is more concerned with practical information.

The Republic of Imagination is a peculiar book that combines close reading with memoir and political discourse to create an unusual hybrid work. The literary analysis is rather dry, and Nafisi perhaps assumes too much about our foreknowledge of these works, but she succeeds rather well in the other two realms. As usual, she is at her best when she is framing her understanding of the books in question with her unique personal experiences, writing from the perspective of someone who started on the outside, but has since come in. Indeed, Nafisi’s decision to finally take American citizenship in 2008 is a key part of the story. As a new citizen, she celebrates the power of literature to cultivate an enlightened citizenry, capable of understanding nuance, exercising sympathy, and placing information in its proper context. And as she immersed herself in American history in preparation for the citizenship exam, she discovered than the founding fathers shared her enthusiasm for the role of a well-rounded education in promoting their democratic ideals.

Nafisi’s original outline of The Republic of Imagination called for her to discuss dozens of books. The final version is a somewhat more modest endeavour. The chapters are rather unbalanced, beginning with a one hundred fifty page discussion of Huckleberry Finn. Carson McCullers gets eighty pages for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Mute, and Sinclair Lewis a mere sixty pages for Babbit. One gets the sense Nafisi could have written the entire book about Huck, who becomes an almost mythical entity with a life of his own; everything ties back to Huck. The epilogue, not included in the ARC, and estimated at an additional twelve pages, comes in at thirty-seven pages in the finished book.  Not so much an epilogue, Nafisi has shoe-horned in an abortive half chapter on James Baldwin rather than a proper conclusion. What is evident here is Nafisi’s personal connection to the texts in question, and the individuality of each person’s reading. These particular books have spoken powerfully to her, and informed her conception of the American identity, but different books might speak more strongly to others.

Although not every reader will connect to the books Nafisi has chosen to feature here, she makes strong argument for the value of literature in our society. However, freedom allows for everything, even complacency. Just as some citizens of democratic nations are too apathetic to exercise their right to vote, so too they take for granted the value of their other freedoms, not least of all art in all its many forms. Nafisi refuses to bow to “the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more ‘useful’ fields.” It is a paradox that a democratic society grants us the freedom to pursue such passions, but not necessarily the wisdom to value them. Nafisi reframes art as “imaginative knowledge,” which is different from information, but no less important. In the introduction, Nafisi writes, “The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation. Works of imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.” But really, it is Nafisi who is the canary, and she is sounding the alarm.

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Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 

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Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

I Do And I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine Basingerby Jeanine Basinger

ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4

Only rarely would the marriage film try to tell the audience directly, with no subtext, something married couples already know but not everyone wanted articulated: marriage and romantic love are not the same thing.

As a work of non-fiction, I Do And I Don’t occupies a peculiar space between academic and popular writing. Wesleyan University film professor Jeanine Basinger sets out “an overview of how commercial movies told the story of marriage” with the purpose of defining the “marriage movie” as a distinct genre, and particularly as a genre separate from romantic comedy. Basinger watched over three hundred films, and reviews more than a century of cinematic history, beginning in the silent era (with a strong focus on the work of Cecil B. DeMille), placing a heavy emphasis on the studio system in the middle of the book, and concluding in the modern era with an aside into television. As Basinger herself acknowledges, although there are moments of critical analysis, the work is largely descriptive in nature, and lacking in sufficient in-text citation (though it has an extensive bibliography) to be considered scholarly. Arguably, however, this focus on description is permissible because Basinger is seeking to define a genre, which she does by providing clear qualifications and numerous examples. The significance of defining marriage movies as a separate genre is largely implied rather than discussed, but simply creating a clear definition of the genre provides a strong basis from which future film critics can develop the idea.

Although not perfectly scholarly, I Do And I Don’t is not your average work of popular non-fiction either. Those without a strong interest in either film history or cultural representations of marriage will be likely to find the long lists of examples extremely tedious. Film buffs on the other hand, will come away with a long list of movies worth watching. Basinger isn’t afraid to highlight her lesser-known favourites, or criticize titles or performances she believes are overrated, showcasing her incredible knowledge of American cinematic history (don’t skip the footnotes in this one).  The less scholarly tone also frees Basinger to unleash her sense of humour, and marriage movies provide plenty of low-hanging fruit, even leaving romantic comedy aside.

The key question asked by the marriage movies, and defining Basinger’s genre is “what happened to us?” Basinger provides seven answers, which are the key the marriage movie plot. Ranging from most to least realistic, they are money, infidelity, family, incompatibility, class, addiction and murder. They also solve the problem of how to portray marriage in the movies, which has an inherent challenge in that “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year.” Without these issues to impose a problem-structure story arc, marriage simply wasn’t interesting. Even with these issues, the idea of a “marriage movie” was not deemed appealing. Hollywood has a long history of conflating marriage and romance, using the “love story” to sell movies that were hardly romantic, as Basinger demonstrates by reviewing movie posters and film advertisements that assiduously avoid using the word “marriage.” Overall, Basinger paints a clear and detailed picture of a film industry that simultaneously provides contradictory images of marriage, “selling love” on one hand, and “knocking marriage” on the other.