Tag: Megan Daum

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?

Advertisements

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

Cover image for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absbored Edited by Megan Daum

ISBN 978-1-250-05293-3

“I picture my life without children as a hole dug in sand and then filled with water. Into every void rushes something. Nature abhors a vacuum. Into the available space and time and energy of my kid-free life rushed a thousand other things.” –Kate Christensen

Edited 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. Though all the contributors are authors, most do not seem to feel that writing has taken the place of children. Rather, they have a wide range of reasons for choosing not to have kids. Some of their decisions were very conscious and active, while others were more passive decisions that were made by failing to act. Many contributors had close calls, and had to deal with miscarriages or abortions. One writer deliberately pursued single motherhood through artificial insemination, only to be relieved when the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Through this range of material, the collection interrogates the idea that opting out of parenthood is self-serving or indolent, and reveals the many different assumptions society makes about those who choose not to reproduce.

The essays vary greatly in tone. Some are quiet and introspective, while others are angry, such as Laura Kipnis’ blazing tirade against the natural fallacy and the idealization of the maternal instinct, which she argues “exist as social conventions of womanhood at this moment in history, not as eternal conditions.” By contrast, Tim Kreider accepts and even embraces the unnaturalness of deliberate childlessness. “It is a complex animal indeed, arguably one too highly evolved for its own good, that consciously declines to fulfill one of its few basic biological imperatives. The only act more perverse and unnatural than purposely not reproducing is suicide,” he observes. Still others lean more towards humour, such as Geoff Dyer, who remarks that “By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles.”

A number of trends emerge from the essays. Women significantly outnumber men, and most of the writers are old enough now that children are unlikely if not impossible. The predominance of women perhaps reflects the increased scrutiny women face from society as they reach the end of their childbearing years. In general, while most of the men who contributed seemed constant in, and sure of, their decision, the women often revealed deep-seated anxieties and uncertainties that were only enhanced by social pressures.

Fear of today’s intensive middle-class American parenting style features prominently in many of the essays. “I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena. Basically I’m afraid of my own competence,” writes Anna Holmes in “Mommy Fearest.” This intensive parenting trend finds a strange counter-point in the serious lack of parental leave and benefits that currently exists in the United States, and indeed the writers in the collection are predominantly American.

Many of the writers were eager to strike down the presumption that they dislike children because they do not want any of their own. Courtney Hodell writes about her fierce love for her brother’s daughter, while Pam Houston writes about loving her unexpected stepdaughter, while also being happy her partner is not the custodial parent. Sigrid Nunez finds herself disturbed by those childless adults who express dislike for children, perhaps having absorbed the common belief that such an attitude is unnatural.

As the titles suggest, the charge of selfishness is one that is frequently leveled against the deliberately childless, and which most of the writers take pains to fight back against. In perhaps the most maddening essay of the book, Lionel Shriver suggests that maybe the childless-by-choice are in fact selfish since, “In contrast to our predecessors, we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we were happy.” However, Anna Holmes and Danielle Henderson both push back against the idea that self-care is the same as selfishness, while Pam Houston argues cogently that “there are women who choose motherhood for selfish reasons. There are mothers who act selfishly even if they choose motherhood in a burst of altruistic love. Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices.”

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.