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Festive Book Recs: Happy Lunar New Year!

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Happy Lunar New Year, friends!

Today, on the 28th of January, is the first day of the lunar calendar, else known as the Lunar New Year. For a lot of us, Lunar New Year is a very important day – one that is filled with celebration, spending time with family and the ones we love, and eating a lot of delicious food. For those of us with Chinese heritage, we call Lunar New Year Chinese New Year — and it’s the Year of the Rooster too! However, today is also Korean New Year, Mongolian New Year, Tibetan New Year, and Vietnamese New Year. (And a happy new year to you too, my friends!)

I am super honoured and delighted to have three book bloggers contribute to today’s Festive Book Recs – Lili, Jeann, and Alex – and share with you what Chinese New Year means to them and what they do to celebrate! In the end, Lili, Jeann, Alex will also be recommending two books each that relate to Chinese New Year.

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Mini-Reviews: My Adventure into Non-Fiction

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I’m doing something a little different and a little new today! For one, I never read non-fiction, and I don’t usually write mini-reviews. But today, as the title strongly implies, I’ll be sharing some mini-reviews of non-fiction books I have read in the last two months!

Before August this year, I was never interested in non-fiction. I enjoy reading because I enjoy the act of escaping into another world. Reading non-fiction, I discovered, offers something else: it offers insight, it can humanize, and it can implore. I loved the four non-fiction books I read in August and September – three were biographies and one was a series of essays, and I can’t wait to tell you about them today!

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The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World


Synopsis: During London 1854, in an era predating common knowledge of microbes and germs, a cholera outbreak ravaged the city and left hundreds dead within a matter of days. Amidst the competing quack theories and medieval treatment methods that arose, an anesthesiologist by the name of John Snow sets out to prove the causal connection between the contaminated water source and the spread disease.

Review: Initially drawn to the book in part due to my penchant for the morbid, I had expected the book to be laden with gruesome descriptions. I will borrow word to which the author used to describe John Snow–consiliency. A major point of emphasis to solving the outbreak was Snow’s multitude of talents and his interdisciplinary approach of science and statistics, along with a local curate named Henry Whitehead who knew the city and its people intimately. Similarly, as if to echo Snow’s approach, the author documents the case from several perspectives: setting up the squalid living conditions and infrastructure, painting the portrait of the everyday average denizen from the night-soilers to the local tailor, describing the systematic process of how vibrio cholerae invades and depletes the human body, to the competing scientific paradigms as ideologies and classes pitting against each other, and construction of the eponymous “Ghost Map” which drew corollaries between the location of deaths and water pumps with a Voroni Diagram.

The parts which I found particularly fascinating was the scientific approach and thought process one ought to undertake the solve the issue: how does one connect observations with the conclusion/result? It is often easy (and convenient) to erroneously attribute cause and the result, for scientists in who subscribe to different paradigms tend to look for what their paradigm instructs. For example, the miasma theory — the idea that it was the noxious effluvia causing the ailment — an examiner who had been sent to investigate the Soho District only had looked at air conditions like temperature, pressure, etc. without insomuch as regarding examining the water quality. Consequently, since the report only contained evidence deemed relevant by the examiner, it concluded the miasma-causing disease assertions were correct. Could this thought process be applied to Snow as well, who believed in the waterborne theory? For when he interviewed residents, he inquired the source of water they consumed? Perhaps what made the discting stood out was the discussion of how Snow investigated outliers to determine why there were outliers.

If there’s one thing I admired, it was Snow’s diligent and meticulous tenacity to persevere to continue investigating and traveling to the centre of the outbreak itself in full peak in person to interview people, even if he was ridiculed for going against the common belief of the time. Another reviewer which he aptly put, “Snow was a badass.” Yes, yes he was. He developed usage of applying ether and choloroform as an anaethesia ground-up when surgeons where still hacking away limbs with only using opium/brandy as sedatives. Because he worked with gases, he knew basically the “bad air” theory was bullcrap and had observed something was going on in the small intestine, which he then conjectured that it was probably due to something people ingested, not inhaled.

ALSO I TOTALLY SHIP WHITEHEAD AND SNOW BC THEIR UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP LIKE THE UNEXPECTED PLOT TWIST WAS MY FAV PART OF HOW THEY BONDED DESPITE WHITEHEAD NOT BELIEVING HIM INITIALLY BUT EVENTUALLY THEY COMPARED NOTES AND SOLVED IT TOGETHER DUDE LIKE WHITEHEAD KEPT A PORTRAIT OF SNOW SEVERAL DECADES AFTER HIS DEATH TO REMIND HIM OF HIS QUIET DEMEANOUR SERIOUSLY THOUGH HOW ADORABLE IS THAT

One major drawback of the book was the lack of diagrams illustrating the flow of water routes, streets, and overall infrastructure of the city. Considering how crucial understanding the inner working to the issue, the passages describing these complex networks and routes gets hard to follow. The conclusion of the book is mostly spent on describing recent phenomena of urban development, and improvements since then, which wasn’t nearly as interesting. I liked how the point was made that the cholera outbreak was the culmination of the decrepit living conditions that had allowed to fester, as it was a symptom of a the greater need to reform the entire sewage/water system, thus forcing city governments to play a more active/direct involvement in urban development.
Despite the author’s attempts to touch on many topics, I would recommend this book primarily for readers who are interested in urban geography and development, and for those who are interested in a landmark case study in statistical applications, and epidemology.

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Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks

black looksI owe bell hooks. I have owed bell hooks ever since my encounter with her writing in my final year in university, wherein we analyzed the importance of intersectionality and the potential problems of white feminism and how it has a tendency to be a form of cultural imperialism with the guise of ‘equality’. In other words, I have loved bell hooks ever since her words empowered me as a PoC feminist.

Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks contains 12 essays that centralize its focus and analysis on blackness and representation of blackness in the media. As an intersectional feminist, I think it is necessary praxis to listen, understand and broaden one’s awareness of a range of issues that affect different people of colour so that we can be good allies. And though this book is predominantly about blackness, the sentiment and Black Looks is accessible, educational and still relevant today, even though it was written in 1992.

Something that particularly stood out for me was hook’s observation that solidarity is often formed via shared pain – that we can develop connections with others through our experiences of pain, namely self-hatred, overt prejudice and issues of identity. However, hooks argues that it is equally important – or more important – that we, as people of colour, should also construct language that is positive, and about loving and affirming what makes us different in the realm of white supremacy.

Though critical consciousness is necessary, and it can be painful to confront and change our internalized racism and self-hatred, hooks asserts that self-affirmation, supporting one another and recognition that our experiences are not monolithic are important in resisting oppressive systems that privilege and favour whiteness. This particular point served as an important reminder for me to not only bring awareness and arouse consciousness in those around me, but to also actively support and affirm my PoC peers and encourage self-love.

To construct language that affirms our identities, to encourage self-love and acceptance in our ourselves and each other is so important, especially when most of us who grow up surrounded with images that elevate and celebrate whiteness and diminishes or reinforce stereotypes of non-whiteness will feel pain, confusion and alienation. Supporting each other, our brothers and sisters, is something vital to bridge those gaps of alienation and to heal those wounds.

hooks also talks a lot about representation of blackness in the media, and how sexism intersects with racism in such portrayals. She also shares her experiences with her discussions with other people of colour, especially black women, and also the white people she taught in her classes. A particular statement she makes, which I deeply agree with, asserts:

Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, forgetfulness is encouraged.

Too often have I heard people make calls to forget about history, that the past is the past, and to ‘move on’ from the past — never mind that the effects of the past, of history, of memories of violence enacted on people of colour, remain; still hurting us, and the very violence people abhor and discourage happen today. From that, bell hooks offers an important discussion on the importance of memory, solidarity and resisting erasure.

To those who are not black and do not know the struggles of blackness (and may struggle with this book), it is especially important for us to read, listen, absorb and understand. I took much from this book. I encourage people to read this book if they want to gain insight on perspectives and approaches on blackness, gender and sex, media and identity.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: Black Looks: Race and Representation
Author: bell hooks
Pages: 200
Publisher: South End Press

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Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the WIld

I picked up Into The Wild at my local library when Shingie asked me about Chris McCandless. She asked me if I had heard about an idealistic college-aged man who became fed up with society and its conformist ways and decided to travel around America but eventually died in Alaska. And you know me – if there’s idealism and a deliberate attempt to subvert social institutions, I’m immediately intrigued.

Into the Wild, written by Jon Krakauer, follows the life of Chris McCandless, after he abandons a life closely bound to society and material possessions, and begins an odyssey across America as well as his final trek into the Alaskan wild, where he eventually starves and dies.

Though we learn about Chris McCandless through the recounts of others, my take on Into The Wild is that it is not a novel about Chris McCandless or Alex Supertramp, but it is about the lives his intersected with, touched, and moved. What stood out for me was the profound effect Chris/Alex had on the people he meets; throughout the novel, Krakauer interviews various people who describe their time with McCandless. What seems to be a common denominator in his acquaintances, is that they all seemed to care about him. There were some who certainly cared more than others, but they would have all agreed that he was a special individual.

A question I asked myself throughout the book was: why did these people care so much for a stranger? I don’t know if this is because of some hospitality common in the United States, or if it was because Chris McCandless was truly a unique and special individual. And whilst it may be a mix of both, something that compelled me in this novel was McCandless himself. His strong sense of idealism is something that drew me in, and that drive for him to do something about world issues – poverty, race, genocide in Africa – as well as his search for authenticity are characteristics that I really identify with. Sometimes, the search for meaning and authenticity is difficult when materialism and social norms pervade our society – sometimes the latter is necessary, but sometimes they border on the extreme and it feels artificial, arbitrary.

McCandless’s ideals should probe introspection, rather than critique (even if his supposedly plight is that of the privileged white man). What I find interesting is the reactions people have had to his journey and his endeavour to explore and seek meaning that transcends materialism and what we find in the norm. Readers have asserted that McCandless was mentally ill or was naive and foolish. Putting aside whether there is any truth to be found in these speculations, isn’t it interesting how people respond to McCandless’s deviance? It’s like people struggle to understand actions that are beyond the boundary and are acts of deviance but the ‘deviant’ is doing it at their own free will and is conscious of their actions.

Putting aside his privileged background, his conflict and discomfort with society and all things material is something worth thinking about. Personally, I share McCandless’s contempt for modern society (though my own feelings are of a lesser degree), and the powerlessness he felt in society. Setting out into the wild was an attempt to gain mastery of his life. While society is dictated by a set of rules, norms and values, the flip-side is a free-for-all; there are no rules or norms in deviance or non-normative society. People see deviance as a barren wasteland, but McCandless perceived it to be a world full of opportunities without constraints, limitations, and devoid of anyone who could curtail his idealism and life.

Furthermore, McCandless’s contempt for how our lives are structured and prescribed since the day we are born is particularly evident through the accounts of his acquaintances. And this isn’t about the suggestion that McCandless didn’t want to ‘grow up’ – because that’d be a gross misrepresentation of McCandless’s ideas – but McCandless identified something in society that pervades our social life, namely the struggle with capitalism, and entering the conveyor belt that ultimately leads from exploitation to death. What I see in McCandless is a manifestation of a social disease that Marxists call alienation. Not just alienation from our labour, but also alienation from our own lives – to whom do our lives belong to? McCandless tried to ensure that his life would belong to him, and him alone, and that meant relinquishing his ties to society.

Aside from an otherwise interesting book, there were some passages that deviated from the main purpose of the book. Though I can understand the chapters where Krakauer talks about others that decided to forsake society and live in the wild, one particular chapter was dedicated to speculating whether McCandless was sexually active or celibate. And I know that all aspects of McCandless’s life should be fleshed out for the sake of autobiography and understanding the depth of McCandless’s character, but I found this little passage to be… creepy? More so, the chapter where the author talks about his own life were not interesting to me. Krakauer wanted to use himself and his time as a youth to draw parallels between McCandless’s life and his own, but it felt superfluous and the book could have done without it.

Otherwise, I found Into the Wild to be an engaging and compelling read. I felt like I could strongly relate to McCandless’s idealism, and though idealism comes with its faults – sometimes our idealism makes us naive, and although we are conscious of our own naivety – we feel like we have to try regardless. I think it begs the question of what our lives mean – or could mean – if we did things differently, and what it means to live and then die for our ideals and beliefs.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book Name: Into the Wild
Author: Jon Krakauer
Publisher: Pan Books
Pages: 205