Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Year of Reading Dangerously

I had a realization a few years ago that my reading is dominated by white male British authors. I wondered how I could ever challenge the hegemony if my reading is informed by them. Not that that there's anything wrong with white male British authors, but when your reading starts to look like David Cameron's class photo then it's time to re-evaluate.

For the men who kept me company though: Nick Hornby, John O' Farrell and Sir Terry Pratchett shaped my humor, Frank McCourt gave me Ireland in the 1930s, and Shakespeare ruled my GCSEs.

While these men governed most of my reading, the rest of my reading wasn't that bad. I also grew up with Amy Tan, Marjane Satrapi, and Khaled Hosseini. Now since my realization I am trying to treat my reading like an equal opportunity employer. Too many men? Pick up more books by women! (Gillian Flynn, Sue Monk Kidd, Katharine Stockett). Not enough foreign women or women of color? Get Marina Lewycka, Nikita Lalwani. Not enough India? Aravind Adiba's "White Tiger" and the difficult slog that is "Shantaram" (one day, I may just finish it). How about an autobiography by prominent African-American men like Malcolm X and President Obama's "Dreams of My Father"? Ok. Throw in the Lebanese-French guy Amin Maalouf in there with "Ports of Call" and "Samarkand." On my bookshelf, my leisurely reading is starting to diversify and engage in polite conversation by the water cooler.

I mean, it's still hard to avoid the white guys though (and men in general) they've had a head start for years and they're good. Dan Brown anything, Malcolm Gladwell, the Freakonomics guys, etc.

I just finished Dai Sijie's "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress." It was a nice little romp through Mao's cultural revolution, centering around two young boys who were sent to a rural mountain to face re-education.

I think all my reading of Amy Tan's books raised my expectation for more detail and cultural context, but this book is pretty short and lays bare the emotional change the boys experience and the learned change the little seamstress experiences through her encounters with them.

I was a little surprised to see that the book is in fact semi-autobiographical! I love when authors surprise me like this with non-fiction wrapped in fiction. "The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd was such an absorbing tale set 100 years before the abolition of slavery in the US that I was bowled over when I discovered that this work too has roots in non-fiction. Now that's a book that's been hard to top in terms of character development, emotional strength and climax. I've been reading book after book after book trying to relive the same feelings that book put me through and the only one that came close was Khaled Hosseini's "And the Mountains Echoed."

My aim is to continue on this reading enterprise, and my preference is always going to be for the cultural slant, the underdog, the misery, and the uplifting redemption of love.

Got any recommendations? Send them my way.