Armchair BEA Day #4 – Ethics and Nonfiction

IMG_0599This week is going by so quickly, and the pacing of Armchair BEA is particularly intense.  I haven’t gotten a chance to respond to everyone’s comments, but I will get to them as soon as I have a chance.  I’m incredibly touched by how many of you are visiting and sharing books and stories.  It means a lot to me.

Today’s Instagram challenge is Best of 2013. I’d have to say that “The Emperor’s Soul” wins that one, hands down.  The other books in the photograph are some of the books that I’ve read recently and greatly enjoyed.  Actually, despite my hiatus, this has been a good reading/blogging year for me, because I’ve loved almost everything I’ve picked up.

The first discussion topic for the day is ethics.  For me, the question of book blogging ethics is inexorably tied to advance review copies.  I’ve seen a lot of discussions on the subject in the past few days at Armchair BEA.  One one hand, they introduce book bloggers to new and pre-release books.  On the other hand, they can lead to blogs becoming more of a marketing tool for publishers than a creative outlet for bloggers.  It can be a challenge to find a middle ground.  My way of reconciling the two is by not hosting giveaways/interviews/promotional posts of books that I haven’t read and reviewed first.  I don’t mind sharing promotional material about books on occasion, but I want my focus to be first and foremost on reviewing.  I also don’t want to be the type of blog that only reviews ARCs–I want to discover old and forgotten gems and share them with people who would love them as much as I do.

What are your opinions on ARCs?  What challenges do they present for bloggers?

Today’s genre discussion is nonfiction.  During the past few years, I’ve rarely read nonfiction, but there was a time in my life when I read a lot of philosophy.  Nietzsche, Locke, John Stewart Mill, Rousseau, Marx, Aquinas–you name it.  I was in Lincoln-Douglass style debate in high school, which exposed me to political philosophy, and it started me on a several year reading tangent.  Pair that with my fascination with Russia, and I ended up reading a lot of primary sources from the time leading up to and following the 1917 revolution so that I could get some idea of the intellectual climate of the time period.  Eventually the pressures of school and work caught up with me.  My Russian history/philosophy research started to make my brain hurt, even though it was extremely fascinating.  Looking for something a bit more escapist, I re-entered the world of fiction.

Categories: Nonfiction | Tags: , , , | 22 Comments

“Library: An Unquiet History” by Matthew Battles

It’s getting close to finals time, and one of my projects this semester involved a Library Journal style book review on a book about libraries.  I chose Matthew Battles’ “Library:  An Unquiet History.”  Personally, I find the style of Library Journal reviews to be unnecessarily constraining, so I thought I’d take a moment here to ramble a bit about the book.

Battles, an eccentric Harvard Librarian, describes the history and evolution of libraries from the ancient world to the present.  While the book mentions the obvious stuff like the Library of Alexandria, I also learned a lot from it that I hadn’t read before in other places.  I didn’t know about book burnings of Aztec volumes; in fact, I hadn’t even realized that the Aztecs had so many written texts.  The author also mentioned a library found in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust, which shows the resilience of libraries even under some of the most hostile conditions.

While I found the information to be fascinating, I thought that Battles writing was unnecessarily verbose and disorganized.  He jumps around a lot in both time and space, and a few times I found myself caught off guard thinking “Hey wait, weren’t you just talking about something going on an a different continent?”  There was also a tangent on Jonathan Swift that lasted a bit too long for my taste (not that Jonathan Swift isn’t awesome–he is–but it felt excessive).  It’s not that the book isn’t good, but I’m the sort of person who prefers a clear form of organization that doesn’t jump around so much.

Battles very clearly cares about his subject matter, but this book didn’t really do it for me.  At the same time, I can see why some people would enjoy it.  One of Battles’ strengths is that he brings up a lot of interesting anecdotes and historical details that get glossed over or aren’t mentioned in other similar books, and those anecdotes do give readers a sense of perspective.  His use of intellectual history to illustrate the changing purpose of the library shows how the very concept of a library has changed over time.

The history of libraries is something that interests me, and I wish it were more widely known.  I often hear that e-books are killing libraries, but at the same time, books like this one show the way that people have thought that libraries were dying for hundreds upon hundreds of years now.  Instead of doing so, they evolved to confront the challenges of their eras.

Categories: History, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 11 Comments

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

“It became a habit with us, a permanent aspect of our relationship, to exchange stories.  I told them that listening to their stories, and through living some of my own, I had a feeling that we were living a series of fairy tales in which all the good fairies had gone on strike, leaving us stranded in the middle of a forest not far from the wicked witch’s candy house.  Sometimes we told these stories to one another to convince ourselves that they really happened.  Because only then did they come true.”

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” is a memoir of women’s life in Iran during the latter part of the 20th century.  The author has since moved to the US, but recollects her experiences teaching an underground literature class to selected students.  She writes of the impact of literature and imagination, using the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen to frame the events of the Islamic revolution and the Iran/Iraq war.

The memoir is at the same time uplifting and sad.  The author tells of her struggle whether to continue teaching at the university while accepting increasing personal restrictions, and whether going along with them makes her complicit in the regime that she opposes.  As women’s rights became increasingly restricted, she felt that she had become irrelevant and isolated within her own society.  Nafisi also writes about the struggles of each of her students, several of whom spend time in jail or are pressured into marriage at a young age.

As a whole, I found the book fascinating.  There are a lot of literary references, which might be a bit frustrating for some readers, but was one of the aspects of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” that I loved most.  It isn’t just about the books themselves, but about the experience of reading them in a specific context.  I even found Nafisi’s depictions of Jane Austen fascinating, and I’m by no means an Austen fan.  I do wish, however, that we would see a bit more about the author’s relationship with her own husband, because for about 3/4 of the book, he seemed to be just a side note.  He existed in the background, but wasn’t really an active player in the story.

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” is by no means a quick read.  It’s meant to be digested slowly and to make readers think.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in the position of women in the Middle East or in Iranian history.  I applaud Nafisi’s decision to host a secret literature class.  As someone who loves literature, I think it’s such an awesome idea.

Categories: Memoir, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday

I read this book as a part of a class I’m taking this semester on multiculturalism and librarianship.

The book is about Native American culture, specifically the Kiowa.  It tells the story of the author’s journey to visit his grandmother’s grave near Rainy Mountain.  Each page is split into three segments.  Momaday opens each section with a Kiowa myth, then follows up with a segment of historic fact.  He then ties everything together by relating those things to his own experiences and childhood memories, most of which are universal in nature.  He writes in a very straightforward poetic prose, which is easy to read but full of meaning.

There were always dogs about my grandmother’s house.  Some of them were nameless and lived a life of their own.  They belonged there in a sense that the word “ownership” does not include.  The old people paid them scarcely any attention, but they should have been sad, I think, to see them go.

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” is beautifully written and carries profound messages, despite its short length.  The stories of Tai-me, the Sun Dance, and buffalo hunts captivated my imagination, and were told with a great deal of reverence.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in Native American literature.

Categories: History, Nonfiction, Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A History of Modern Russia” by Robert Service

Since I’ve focused primarily on fiction thus far, I thought it might be nice to review one of my favorite nonfiction books.  Service does a fantastic job providing a recap of 20th century Russian/Soviet history that is both highly readable and well-researched.

One of the biggest problems with history books about the Soviet era is that almost all of them are heavily biased, either demonizing or glorifying the Soviet Union.  Service does neither, but instead takes a cynical view about everything.  He is able to provide a rather objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of various figures, while realizing that we’re all adults and don’t need to know that the evil commies are coming to get us.

As the book is only around 500 pages, there are of course a lot of things that are glossed over.  At the same time, Service did a good job at highlighting major events.  The book covers late imperial Russia through around 1994, but there isn’t much coverage of anything after the fall of the Soviet Union.  I would personally liked to see more of that, and how one ties the Russia of today to it’s historical roots.  However, that wasn’t the point of the book.  I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning more about Russian history.

Categories: Dead Russians, History, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Lenin’s Mistress: The Life of Inessa Armand” by Michael Pearson

Inessa Armand is a fascinating historical figure.  She is most famous for her role as Lenin’s mistress, but was quite remarkable in her own right.  She lived during the late 1800s-early 1900s, at a time when women had few rights and little social mobility.  However, instead of living with that role, Inessa had an open marriage with her husband, basically telling him from the start that she’d get bored of him and one day leave him.  She eventually did that, and focused her time on becoming a revolutionary.  She had her legendary affair with Lenin and became an influential Bolshevik in her own right.

Pearson did a great job of researching this book, but I have one major complaint.  He made it very clear in the second half of his book that he absolutely loathes Lenin.  This can be a problem when you’re writing a book on mistress of someone you despise.  Toward the end of the book, I kept finding myself saying, “Look dude, I know you hate Lenin, but I want to read Inessa’s story, not a tirade against Lenin.  Really?  Really?”

I’d love to see Inessa’s story explored as historical fiction.  I can understand why Pearson chose to write a biography rather than a novel, because certain elements of Inessa’s life are rather fantastic in their own right, to the point that in a fiction novel one might think that real details are embellishment.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, despite the anti-Lenin bias, mostly because it’s the only reliable biography of Inessa Armand, and I think that more people should know her story.

Categories: Biography, Dead Russians, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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