1. GRIMM TALES: FOR YOUNG AND OLD – PHILIP PULLMAN (2012)
Philip Pullman has chosen his fifty favourite stories from the Brothers Grimm and presents them in his unique voice. He follows each short story with a brief commentary on the story’s background and history.
I bought this book around three years ago so was excited to finally get around to reading it. Written around 200 years ago with many stories becoming the basis for many popular watered-down fairy-tales (e.g. Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin and Briar Rose aka. Sleeping Beauty), it was interesting to be able to read the original versions that were generally darker.
However, I don’t think that the stories necessarily aged well, and I found the depiction of women in all the stories quite problematic. Most of the princesses were described solely as beautiful, as if that was their only defining trait. I didn’t enjoy the idea of men falling in love without even having said a word to them and getting married straight away or princesses being used as currency. Another problem was that other women in the stories were portrayed as evil witches, evil stepmothers or maidens needing a husband. I understand that the basis for fairy-tales is that a couple get married and ‘live happily ever after’ but I think that if these stories continue to be read to children, they can be quite damaging for them to be taught that they will only be happy when they’re married. Realistically, the high divorce rates beg to differ.
Philip Pullman is undoubtedly a good writer, but I wasn’t a big fan of the Grimm Tales themselves.
2. AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE – TAYARI JONES (2018)
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.
Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.
I was absolutely blown away by this book! It was incredibly frustrating, but sadly true to life, to read about a Black man who was falsely accused of rape and sent to prison – why were no DNA tests done?! Regardless, Jones spent very little time on Roy’s arrest and trial because we know he’s innocent. I found the letters exchanged between Roy and Celestial while he was imprisoned and how their relationship changed both insightful and captivating to read. Written from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial and Andre, the story explained how incarceration hurts more than the person locked up, how everything you were or had can disappear in this time and how draconian the law can be against Black men.
“Much of life is timing and circumstance”
“Is it love, or is it convenience?” She explained that convenience, habit, comfort, obligation – these are all things that wear the same clothing as love sometimes.
3. INVISIBLE WOMEN: EXPOSING DATA BIAS IN A WORLD DESIGNED FOR MEN – CAROLINE CRIADO PEREZ (2019)
Award-winning campaigner and writer Caroline Criado Perez discusses how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population. Men have been treated as the default human being and women as atypical. For example, did you know about any of the following?
- For over a hundred years, a tenth-century Viking skeleton known as the ‘Birka warrior’ had – despite possessing an apparently female pelvis – been assumed to be male because it was buried alongside a full set of weapons and two sacrificed horses i.e. male-default thinking that only a man could be a warrior because weapons apparently trump the pelvis when it comes to sex. However, it was confirmed in 2017 through DNA that the bones did *surprise surprise* belong to a woman.
- The ‘classic’ symptoms of a heart attack (i.e. pain in the chest and down the left arm) are typicalmale heart attack symptoms. Women are more likely to experience breathlessness, fatigue, nausea and what feels like indigestion. Consequently, women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed and die if they have a heart attack.
- In a car accident, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured because crash test dummies are based on male physique and cars are built correspondingly.
- In product design and development, prototypes are often built using male body dimensions and requirements. After the launch of the 2018 iPhone, female customers criticized Apple for creating a phone that was too large for the average woman’s hand.
- Most offices are five degrees too cold for women, because the formula to determine their temperature was developed in the 1960s based on the metabolic resting rate of a 40-year-old, 70kg man; women’s metabolisms are slower.
I found this book simultaneously enlightening and understandably frustrating. As we continue to build, plan and develop our world, we have to start taking account of women’s lives and close the female representation gap. Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination. When women are involved in decision-making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten.
In particular, we have to start accounting for the three themes that define women’s relationship with that world.
- The invisibility of the female body: routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design – whether medical, technological or architectural – has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. It leads to us injuring ourselves in jobs and cars that weren’t designed for our bodies. It leads to us dying from drugs that don’t work.
- Male sexual violence against women: how we don’t measure it, don’t design our world to account for it, and in so doing, allow it to limit women’s liberty. Women are intimidated and violated as they navigate public spaces not because of female biology but because of the social meanings we have imposed on male and female bodies.
- Unpaid care work: perhaps the most significant in terms of its impact on women’s lives worldwide. Women do far more than our fair share of this work (75%); it is necessary work without which our lives would all fall apart. Again, this is not down to biology but socially assigned gender roles. It is why they are paid less and more likely to go part-time when they have children.
4. SUCH A FUN AGE – KILEY REID (2019)
In the midst of a family crisis late one evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take her toddler to the local supermarket for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.
I’d seen quite a few people rave about Such a Fun Age online and the synopsis sounded right up my street! I really enjoyed this book and the way that it critiqued ‘white saviours’ with realistic, three-dimensional characters. It was interesting to read the dynamics between them and I felt connected to Emira as someone who also hasn’t figured out what she wants to do with her life. It covers so many topics from race, social class, success to parenting, friendship and the relationship between a nanny and the family she works for. This was a well-written, fast paced and gripping read with excellent dialogue and twists and turns that I’d thoroughly recommend!
“She knew Emira had gone to college. She knew Emira had majored in English. But sometimes, after seeing her paused songs with titles like “Dope Bitch” and “Y’all Already Know,” then hearing her use words like connoisseur, Alix was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction. There was no reason for Emira to be unfamiliar with this word. And there was no reason for Alix to be impressed.”
5. WE, THE SURVIVORS (2019)
Ah Hock is an ambitious, yet uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village with ideas of living a better life by climbing up the social order. However, like many, he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.
I hadn’t heard of this book before but received it as part of the ShelterBox Book Club that my friends very kindly gifted me for my birthday last year. The book choices are inspired by the people and places who have been helped through ShelterBox’s disaster relief work, so it’s been a great way to discover new cultures and characters that are inspired by real-life stories around the world.
While I expected this to be more of a mystery, the story actually focuses on the difficulties of being working-class in Malaysia, corruption and the even tougher lives that migrant workers (from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Rohingya) lead. The narrative is structured through a series of flashbacks beginning in Ah Hock’s childhood weaved in with the present day where Su-Min, a sociology postgrad who has just returned from studying in the US, interviews Ah Hock about his life and the build-up to the murder for her book. The present-day snippets are probably my favourite parts of the book. Although they both grew up in Malaysia, their experiences were vastly different, and I enjoyed reading their interactions. Overall, I liked the book as it gave me the opportunity to learn more about the lives of the working-class and migrants in Malaysia.
I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading recently!