Does Reading Diversely Include Reading More Men?

As I’ve mentioned in several previous blog posts, I decided to make a concerted effort in 2015 to not only read more but to expand the diversity of my personal reading. Although I consider myself to be a person who generally values and cares about diversity, that feeling hadn’t translated to my reading. When I took an inventory of my personal reading from last year I found that, in addition to my being in a reading slump, I was reading overwhelmingly white, women. That didn’t sit well with me, hence my commitment to read harder.

So far, I’m doing reasonably well. I’ve gotten a little off track but a detour into the Toni Morrison backlist is hardly a waste of time. This year I’ve read significantly more stuff by women of colour and my TBR pile is more multi-cultural than it probably would have been if I wasn’t mindfully selecting my reading. But there’s one trend that I have not reversed: I’m still reading more books by women than by men. And I’m wondering – is that something I should feel bad about? On the one hand, the lack of male authors in my personal reading means a lack of representation which is technically a lack of diversity. On the other hand, the fact that women remain sorely underrepresented in the industry means that I have a difficult time feeling too badly about this. That’s only half the point though. The real goal of this challenge for me (and I suspect most participants) is to identify the voices that are absent from our personal reading and seek to include them. In general, men are not marginalized voices in literature but am I missing out by reading from a predominantly female perspective?

Perhaps the only way to answer this question for myself is to explore why I gravitate toward female writers and determine if there’s a gap that needs to be fixed. I don’t know why I tend to read more female authors than male authors but it’s something I’ve always done. Perhaps it all began when I was a young reader and had the potentially naive reasoning that I would relate better to female characters and since more female authors wrote stories about girls I sought out female authors. Since the read harder challenge is all about challenging out preconceived notions about the types of stories we may relate to, my gravitation toward female writers may be problematic. Sounds like I should make an effort to include more male authors in my regular reading.

I came to this conclusion and still felt a little weird about it when it dawned on me that reading more male authors didn’t mean that I needed to start reading more white male authors. I sheepishly admit that this obvious point didn’t hit me immediately but now that it has I’m working on a male-author TBR pile that will satisfy some of the Read Harder challenges and extend beyond. I have physical copies of books by Rohinto Mistry, Sherman Alexie, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, and Kazuo Ishiguro and I’m finally next in line for Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at my local library. My mental list also includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work I’ve never gotten around to, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, because I love his non-fiction.

Does that mean I’m sworn off white male authors? Absolutely not. There’s no way I’ll stop reading Dan Brown, Robert K. Massie, Lawrence Wright, George R.R. Martin, James Salter, or David Sedaris. And I’ve always wanted to really get into Hemingway and see what all the fuss is about. For me, reading diversely isn’t about subtracting from my personal reading but adding to it. I’m adding a little more men and a lot more colour, and my reading world will be richer for it.

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New Cormoran Strike Novel!

Exciting news! J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith has finished the third Cormoran Strike novel!

According to Little Brown, the book is called Career of Evil and will be published this fall. The title is derived from a song by Blue Oyster Cult (although sadly I was too slow to nap that signed copy).

That’s all we know so far. Get excited Cormoran Strike fans!!

Why I Don’t Care About the Historical Accuracy of Historical Fiction

When I was in elementary school, I bought the first two books in The Royal Diaries series at the Scholastic Book Fair. Each book is written like the fictional diary of a real-life royal figure as a young girl. The first book was written from the perspective of a young Elizabeth I and the second from the perspective of a teenage Cleopatra. The end of each book included historical notes on the book’s subject as well as historical photographs and drawings. I devoured the books and became instantly obsessed with both the series and historical fiction.

My penchant for reading historical fiction has followed me into adulthood (I turned 26 last week so I guess I have to grudgingly admit that I’m now technically an adult). I love that the genre allows me to explore historical time periods in a way that is fun and accessible. I love learning about history this way and yet I don’t care about historical accuracy in historical fiction. Don’t get me wrong, authors who can weave the relatively un-embellished facts into a compelling narrative should be recognized for their monstrous achievement (bonus points for you, Hilary Mantel). But authors who take creative liberties, even sweeping ones, should not be condemned (I got your back, Philippa Gregory).

So why don’t I care about the historical accuracy of historical fiction?

1. Historical fiction is educational

I learn a ton from reading historical fiction. I have had a weakness for Tudor-era England ever since I read Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, the first book in The Royal Diaries series. At age 10 I could recite the names of all the wives of Henry VIII, their children, and their fates. I knew that Catherine of Aragon’s parents were Isabel and Ferdinand and that they sent Christopher Columbus on the journey during which he discovered America and I had a decent understanding of the English Reformation for an elementary school kid. I knew all of this not because I was especially bright or because I was learning it in school. I learned it all through reading. I doubt I would have picked up any of the non-fiction books on Tudor history that I’ve read as an adult if I hadn’t been introduced to the era or its characters through fiction.

Although I’ve long outgrown The Royal Diaries series, I continue to learn history from historical fiction as I’m introduced to new places, people, and time periods and inspired to learn more about them.

2. Historical fiction rescues interesting characters from obscurity

Many historical fiction novels elevate supporting characters to starring roles. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, for instance, offers a fresh perspective on the drama of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by telling the story from her sister’s perspective. The relatively minimal historical record on such figures means that in order to develop them into well-rounded characters authors must do some inventing. Staying within the confines of established history means that these characters are either presented as shallow caricatures or ignored altogether. I doubt either of these sad alternatives appeal to readers or history buffs.

3. Fact-checking historical fiction is fun (or am I just super nerdy?)

I happen to think that historical fiction is best paired with historical non-fiction. Having an understanding of the facts, at least as historians understand them, enriches the historical fiction reading experience because it allows the reader to spot when the author is adding their own flavour to history. Historical reality in tact, a reader can then venture confidently into the gray areas of history and chew on the food for thought provided by the author. Also, there is something delightful about fact-checking what seems like an impossible detail only to discover that truth really is stranger than fiction.

If nothing else, nerds like me may enjoy the ego boost derived from the uncovering of historical anomalies in fiction.This gives us a chance to bust out our interesting trivia at appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) moments. Did you know that despite making a menstrual tent the symbolically important setting her book The Red Tent author Anita Diamant acknowledges that there is no historical evidence to suggest that they even existed in ancient Israel/Iraq?

4. Historical fiction is fiction

The purpose of imagining the motivations behind historical figures’ choices is not merely an exercise is examining or re-examining history but also an exploration of human nature. Sure, unlike other genres, historical fiction more obviously derives inspiration from real events and real people but fundamentally historical fiction has more in common with its fictional counterparts than with history books. Evaluating its quality according to its historical accuracy then, rather than its literary merit, is nonsensical and boring. If historical fiction was meant to be completely historically accurate it would be shelved in the non-fiction section.

We love books because we love great writing, interesting characters, thoughtful commentary of human nature, intriguing plots, and, perhaps above all, imagination. I read historical fiction not because of its strict adherence to historical fact, but because of its loyalty to these significantly more important criteria.

Less Inspiration Porn, More Jean Little.

A video is making the rounds on social media featuring a young woman who, after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash, walks down the aisle on her wedding day. It’s a beautiful moment and an amazing testament to the power of determination and love in the face of adversity. While this young woman and her husband deserve congratulations for overcoming the odds, I am troubled by the frequency with which videos like this surface on social media. “Inspiration porn” – the deliberately provocative moniker applied to these types of videos by their critics – appears on social media daily and tends to follow a familiar formula. They briefly interrupt our day to offer warm, fuzzy feelings before we click away to something else. They often involve people with disabilities. They rarely inspire critical thinking. This is troublesome as our reactions to videos like these say much more about our societal perception of people with disabilities than it does about the people featured in them.

Consider this video, which is just one of many examples. The introduction describes the young woman’s determination to walk down the aisle on her wedding day. The voice-over describes that she “willed her body to move,” as if all you need to recover from a spinal cord injury is a good attitude. The video is shared over and over again often with hashtags like #heartwarming, #touching. These reactions reflect, in part, a genuine admiration for how hard this woman worked to regain her mobility. But I think another part of our reaction, one that we are less likely to concede, is relief that the bride once again looks “normal” or at least familiar. She is upright, not “confined” to a wheelchair, and tidily packaged as a woman who overcame a devastating diagnosis and will now live happily ever after. It makes us feel good to watch this 90 second video, but it doesn’t do much to advance our understanding of disability or de-fetishize the people living with them.

But don’t take it from me. While I’m interested in this subject, and have a bit of a background working with children with disabilities, I’m not an expert. Instead, I highly recommend you listen to what the late comedian and journalist Stella Young had to say about the problems with “inspiration porn.” In her hilarious and insightful TEDx Talk called “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much” Young, who had osteogenesis imperfecta and used a wheelchair, recalls being nominated for a community achievement award as a teenager despite “not doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.” She describes how people with disabilities are routinely seen as “inspirations” but not as teachers, doctors, manicurists etc. In short, they are not seen as real people.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to reduce the objectification of people with disabilities. Young suggests that instead of thinking of disability as exceptional we instead question what we think we know about disability. There are lots of ways to do this: spending time with people with disabilities, educating ourselves about the types of disability, or reading stories with characters that have disabilities. Unfortunately, this last suggestion can be difficult to implement given the dearth of books by and about people with disabilities. Which is why I am grateful to have been introduced to Jean Little by my 4th grade English teacher.

Jean Little is a Canadian author who writes primarily for children. She also previously taught children with physical disabilities and is legally blind. While teaching, she noticed that there were very few stories about children that looked like her students. The stories that did include children with physical disabilities usually concluded with them being miraculously cured (think Clara in Heidi and Colin in The Secret Garden). Little wanted her students to read books with children they could relate to and since she couldn’t find any, she wrote them. Her first book Mine For Keeps is about Sally who has cerebral palsy, loves dogs, and is adjusting to her new school after previously attending a rehabilitation school. Its sequel Spring Begins in March is about the challenges Sally’s younger sister experiences as a sibling of someone with a disability who is also struggling academically. From Anna features a young girl with visual impairment and chronicles her family’s escape from Nazi Germany and resettlement in Canada.

I loved Jean Little’s books when I was in elementary school. She wrote about disability in a way that helped me understand the particular challenges that children with disabilities face while also reinforcing the idea that they weren’t all that different from me. Her characters weren’t particularly heroic, in fact they were often flawed, and they were always interesting. Many of her stories were about disability but they were also about family and friendship, and above all they were exciting, engaging, and funny. Learning about disability through reading helped me, and my classmates, build empathy and understanding. I carried this knowledge with me when I began working with children with physical disabilities over a decade later. I remembered how Little’s characters wanted to feel independent and be taken seriously so I was careful to avoid acting in ways that could be perceived as patronizing. My education in disability is far from over, but I am grateful to Jean Little for providing such an excellent foundation.

When people with physical disabilities are the focal point of inspirational videos and images, they dominate our social media feeds because they make us feel good. But before we assign it a hashtag and further disseminate it across cyberspace, it’s worth taking a step back and critically examining how it may be contributing to the inadvertent dehumanization of people with disabilities. The message conveyed by Stella Young and Jean Little is so basic and yet so rarely present in the way society portrays and reacts to people with disabilities. There is no single way to overcome the well-meaning but misguided and ultimately cringe-worthy objectification of people with disabilities, but reading is a powerful tool to consider. While videos shared on social media necessarily leave us on the outside looking in, reading invites us into the world of its characters and asks us to empathize with them. So when it comes to cultural portrayals of people with disabilities, I propose the following rule-of-thumb: less inspiration porn, more Jean Little.

Read Harder Challenge Update

Guys… I am so behind on my Read Harder challenge. It’s not my fault though. It’s Toni Morrison’s. Last year I picked up a copy of Morrison’s oeuvre Beloved at a used bookstore. I started reading it and felt a little lost in the language. I didn’t dislike it but I got the sense that I wasn’t really getting it. So I did some research on Morrison and found out that being confused is often just part of the reading experience. Some recommended starting with her earlier novels before moving on to Beloved which is what I have been doing.

I got The Bluest Eye from the library and read it slowly. I enjoyed it and it seemed like a great introduction to Morrison. Then I picked up Sula and devoured it in two days. I loved it. I feel ready to read Beloved now but noticed that Paradise is currently available on OverDrive so we’ll see.

My detour into Toni Morrison has been wonderful and I’m so glad that I’ve finally added this seminal author to my bookshelf. But technically the Morrison books that I’ve read don’t fulfill any of the requirements of the Read Harder challenge I’m participating in. (As a reminder, the Read Harder challenge was conceived of by BookRiot and includes 25 categories of books to read this year to expand the diversity of your personal reading.)

Obviously the only solution is to give Toni Morrison her own category. After all, the point of the challenge is to explore new reading horizons, not confine them. Which is why I’ve added a “misc” section to my personal Read Harder Challenge. African-American literature and authors of colour are a dearth in my personal reading. I’m excited to change that. So as you’ll see below, I’m pretty behind in my reading challenge but I’ve been reading such great stuff that I don’t really care.

2015 READ HARDER CHALLENGE

4/25 books read

[ In progress] A collection of short stories
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
→ For some reason, short stories aren’t my jam. I love the idea of them in theory but in practice I often feel underwhelmed. If anyone can change my mind about this, it’s got to be the formidable Margaret Atwood. I’m about half-way through Stone Mattress and so far I like.

A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
January 26, 2015
This one is kind of sneaking in here because it won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize so it’s just barely from the last decade. Oh well, still counts!
Review: 3/5 stars. A lovely book, gorgeous writing. I think maybe my expectations were a bit too high as I wasn’t wow-ed the way I thought I would be. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood? I will probably still read the next book though – Lila – as I’m probably most interested in her perspective.

An audiobook
Yes Please – Amy Poehler
April 2, 2015
I listen to a decent number of audiobooks in a year since discovering their awesomeness while working long shifts lugging books at the University of Denver library. So there are a number of books that I could select to fulfill this category but I chose this one because it’s a particular favourite type of audiobook. It’s a funny autobiography of a performer. I love behind-the-scenes looks into films and TV shows and I love comedy and I LOVE Amy Poehler. Choosing Yes Please for this category was a no-brainer.
Review: 4/5 stars. Further proof that Amy Poehler is the greatest. I highly recommend her audiobook. It’s full of great anecdotes about her early life, her improv days, and, of course, her time at SNL and Parks and Recreation. It was sharp, insightful,honest, and very funny. If you love Amy Poehler, you’ll love this book.

A book that someone else has recommended to you
Swamplandia – Karen Russell
→ Although I get plenty of book recommendations online, from friends, from my Mom, I chose this book to fulfill this category because it’s a book that I was previously aware of but it did not appeal to me. I only read it on the strength of a close friend who insisted that I would like it. She was right.
February 20, 2015
Review: 4/5 stars. Dark, weird, feverish, gorgeously written, heartbreaking. It’s going to take me awhile to recover from this one. Really glad I have been introduced to Karen Russell. I will definitely be checking out her short stories.

A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind
The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman
January 27, 2015
Review: 5/5 stars. This is the fist graphic novel I’ve ever read and let me tell you, if other graphic novels are even half as good as this one, I’ve clearly been missing out. I can’t imagine telling this story through any other medium. It was excellent. I finished it in one sitting which is unusual for me as I’m a slow reader. The fact that it was a graphic novel was probably part of the reason why I read it so quickly but it was also impossible to put down. I read way past my bedtime. Very moving for many reasons the obvious being the fact that it was about the Holocaust (and yet it was told in such a matter-of-fact style that somehow worked so well) but also because it recounted the ordinary, even mundane, story of a tough father-son relationship that felt so familiar and yet so sad. I’m obviously gushing but it was just so brilliant.

Misc reading in the spirit of the challenge

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
March 26, 2015
Beautiful writing, really devastating story. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read Toni Morrison. Giant mistake that I’m correcting now.

Sula – Toni Morrison
April 4, 2015
Loved it. Gorgeous writing that really makes you think. Toni Morrison is phenomenal. I loved this character study of women.

A Nerdy, Harry Potter Rant

* spoilers below

J.K Rowling doesn’t Tweet all that often but when she does it’s usually worthwhile. See the exchange below where a fan questions why she announced after the final book was published that Dumbledore is gay because she “just can’t see him that way.” The Harry Potter author responded as such:

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BOOM. (To be fair it’s worth noting the author of the original Tweet apparently responded saying “amazing answer… Yes you are absolutely right. Such an inspiration!!” though the original Twitter account has since gone inactive.)

I think Jo (I can call her that because she told her fans once that we could, plus in my mind we’re kindred spirits who just haven’t met yet) concisely said all that needed to be said about Dumbledore being gay. But if I may (and of course I may – this is my blog!) be permitted to tackle the issue of Dumbledore’s sexual orientation from a purely HP-universe perspective…

Many have suggested that this detail about Dumbledore’s character was an afterthought that Jo inserted given that there is no implicit or explicit mention of this fact throughout the 7-book series. I would be tempted to think the same except for one vital thing: Dumbledore being gay makes so much sense. In fact, a cornerstone of the plot rests largely on him being in love with a man. I’m referring of course to Dumbledore’s “lost summer” with Grindelwald in which the two young men are seduced by the idea of the Death Hallows and pledge to install a new world order in which Wizards and Witches rule over Muggles (non-magic folk). Over the course of their planning the two wizards have a big falling out and part ways. Grindelwald goes on to become one of the most powerful Dark Wizards of all time while Dumbledore rejects completely his former ideology about “the greater good” and opts instead for a life as Hogwarts professor and professional badass.

The importance of Grindelwald, and his relationship with Dumbledore, becomes a focal point of Book 7. Grindelwald steals the Elder Wand soon after parting with Dumbledore which Dumbledore takes into his possession after defeating Grindelwald in a duel years later (he was reluctant to confront his former friend but is eventually persuaded by the fact that Grindelwald was committing atrocious crimes in pursuit of power). The Elder Wand, and it’s ownership, is the reason why Harry doesn’t die when he confronts Voldemort for the final time in Book 7. So as peripheral as Grindelwald may seem, he ends up being pretty damn important to the plot.

Grindelwald is also vital to understanding the character of Dumbledore (and this is true even if you set aside the Headmaster’s sexuality). When we first learn that Dumbledore considered dabbling in the Dark Arts it is shocking. Throughout the series Dumbledore has been a standard-bearer for good which makes the details of his past not only surprising but also very confusing. It goes against everything we know about Dumbledore as a character. Dumbledore claims that this early experience taught him that power is his weakness and his temptation.

With all due respect to Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, I don’t buy it.

The brief time he spent with Grindelwald is the only time he seemed interested in power at all. Two months during one’s youth seems like an awfully short window to become obsessed with power and then quit pursuing it cold turkey. It is therefore more plausible that what seduced Dumbledore that summer was not an idea, but a person. So many things make more sense if Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald. His initial attraction to Grindelwald’s ideas, his hesitation to confront Grindelwald even at the height of the Dark Wizard’s power, and Grindelwald’s refusal to give Voldemort information about Dumbledore or the wand even under torture.

A central theme throughout the Harry Potter series in the power of love and the way that love can make us do extraordinary things. Lily sacrificed her life for her son because she loved him, Snape becomes a double agent and betrays his former master because of his unrequited love for Lily, Harry is tricked into breaking into the Department of Mysteries when he thinks his beloved godfather is in danger, Dumbledore is temporarily blinded to the horror of his ideas because he is experiencing an overwhelming feeling of love for an exciting stranger, and his love for his family eventually helps him see the error of his ways. Love is the central theme that underpins the entire Harry Potter story and Jo has never shied away from portraying love as messy, complicated, and powerful.

For all of these reasons something clicked when J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore is gay. Knowing that crucial fact about the character fills a gap in the plot for me. Sure it’s just how I think through things in my head but, as Dumbledore himself said, why on earth should that means it is not real?

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More On Language (And Less On PC-Culture)

Several years ago I read a fantastic book by Canadian author Lawrence Hill called The Book of NegroesThe book is about a woman named Aminata who is kidnapped from her home in West Africa and sold into slavery in the United States. When the Revolutionary War breaks out, she escapes captivity and helps the British by serving as a midwife and teacher during the war. As a reward for her service, Aminata is granted safe passage to Canada and settles in Nova Scotia as a free woman. Her story continues as she faces discrimination and various forms of hardship in her new country, attempts to reunite with her daughter and husband, and eventually returns to West Africa in search of her home.

The title of the book is derived from an actual historical document called “The Book of Negroes.” It was a book in which the British documented the names of the 3,000 so-called “Black Loyalists” – slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War and were subsequently resettled in Nova Scotia. It’s a fascinating and little known slice of history that is honoured in Hill’s book.

As I mentioned, I read the book several years ago but only recently learned that it has a different title in the US. Instead of The Book of Negroes it is called Someone Knows My Name. Apparently Hill’s American publisher was concerned about releasing a book with the word “Negro” in the title and so it was re-branded for American consumption. If there was ever a time to rage against PC-culture now would be it. In a recent article, however, Hill resists this temptation. Though he is likely confused and a little bothered by the name change (again, Hill didn’t invent “The Book of Negroes” it is an artifact of its time and central to the story he is telling) I was so impressed by his recent article in Slate where instead of lambasting whatever “political correctness” stripped his book of its intended title, he did something much more compelling and infinitely more satisfying. He asked the following: What is it with the word Negroes? How has it come to be so incendiary?

What followed was an overview of the history of the word, a discussion of how its meaning has shifted over the years and across contexts, and a look into the debate over whether the word should be condemned or embraced by the contemporary black community. As someone who believes in the power of language – coincidentally I had just written about that very topic – I was so interested by this article and enjoyed its nuanced take on how a single word can provoke different reactions.

A second thing I appreciate about the article. When it was first published, the article was titled “What I Learned About PC Culture When I Titled My Novel The Book Of Negroes.” I wasn’t a fan of the title.

So of course I was really pleased to see that Slate later changed the title. I have no idea why they did (maybe others felt similarly?) but it doesn’t matter. The new title is a much better reflection of the article’s content and I’m glad the correction was made.

I won’t re-hash the article here as I am not qualified to add anything to Hill’s discussion of the history and significance associated with the word “Negro.” But I urge you all to read it for yourselves. Trust me, it will be a much more enriching experience than yelling at each other online about “PC culture.”