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Reading Time: Stiff Back edition

Howdy scholars!

I’ve hurt my back (to complement my hurt leg: I am, if nothing else, holistic in my approach to injury) and as such have had a bit of toes-up time. Actually, knees up, over a pillow, with feet on the mattress, but if you say “knees up time” people get the wrong idea. Where was I? Oh yes. Books. Books and their readings of.

Aching for Beauty: A History of Footbinding in China – Wang Ping

What a fascinating book! I initially approached the issue of footbinding from a post-feminist perspective: oppression of the body and through it women, demanding they be crippled in the pursuit of a sexual ideal (see also: corsetry, liposuction). But this book goes deeper and proposes the usurpation of footbinding as a process of female empowerment. Although an explanation of the footbinding process is necessarily included, Ping (thankfully) avoids ghoulishly lingering on the physiological and focuses on the social/cultural. China’s cultural history as written on the body and through its literature is explored through the text, identifying the ways in which footbinding, like literature, is reappropriated by the supposedly oppressed class and turned into a unifying tool against the oppressive class.

I believe beauty, gender, violence, social rites, and enculturation of the body (shut up is too a word) are threaded together inextricably in human culture, and the ways this manifests are fascinating. Ping’s book is a wonderful exploration of a particular facet of this issue, and one I know little about, making it even more satisfying and broadening to read.

A good interview with Ping about Aching for Beauty can be found here, and Ping’s website has a thorough listing of her books.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in my Name – Maya Angelou

I can’t remember how I got on to Maya Angelou’s work: I think I read a couple of her poems online and decided to delve deeper, and when I got to the library found four volumes of her autobiography and grabbed those as well. Anyway, before starting on a book of Angelou’s poetry, I decided to read these first two volumes of her biography. If you’re at all familiar with Angelou’s life, you’ll know these are books that talk about some of the very hard things she’s experienced. But she handles them with such grace and strength that it’s hard to forget the powerful voice that would ultimately come from these experiences. I am struck with the honesty and wholeness with which Angelou treats the world in her biographies: she comes across as angered, but not embittered, by some of the experiences, and others she accepts as the result of inexperienced decision-making from her younger self. There’s a maturity to the way she approaches her experiences that I admire deeply.

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie – Maya Angelou

Angelou’s first published book of poetry (published 1971) shows the rhythm, tightness of imagery, and beauty that earned her the Pulitzer Prize. The rhythm of the poetry is what spoke to me most. The poems pulse. Reading this book between the two volumes of biography turns out to be a lucky strike: in the early stages of her publishing career, Angelou alternated between publishing volumes of biography and volumes of verse. If nothing else, reading them in that order meant I was more aware of the racial tensions threading a lot of the anger in the poems: an understanding I would have failed in had I read them without that background knowledge. They’re good, beautiful poems and I’m going to get another book of them when I take this one back to the library.

73 Poems – E.E. Cummings

I fell in love with E.E. Cummings’ poetry when I was studying my undergrad, although I had a little trouble articulating why. Now I think I can say: their joy and their intimacy. That’s not to say they don’t deal with some darker issues (child abuse, the mediocrity of ignorant living) but the works in this collection emphasise joy. Images of spring, the night sky, and self-dissolving love are repeated throughout this collection, leaving me happy and feeling well-fed by the end. The intimacy comes from E.E. Cummings’ famous use of whitespace and punctuation to break his words and verses into stammering, trickling, flowing and dribbling visual pieces. I love the poems that use this technique to weave words and phrases around each other, breaking words up mid-syllable to glance at another word, and forcing you to slowly step through a word’s letters as they halt down the page. Unlike Angelou’s poetry, most of E.E. Cummings’ work doesn’t want to be read aloud: it’s between you and the page. And as you read and reread the poem, its emotional force reveals itself to you, in your inner voice. It’s very beautiful.

I love library books. When these babies go home, more are coming back with me.

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