Books I Read in 2021, Part 1: January to June

“Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled”—Mindy Kaling.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

Language was invented, Robin Williams enlightens us in Dead Poets Society, to woo women. But the modern consensus is that it was developed by all sexes, to woo all sexes (PDF). I wonder then, would that have occurred to his progressive character in 1959? Would he have been equally candid teaching in a girls’ boarding school instead?

I like to think so.

Yet if words do indeed possess such power, that means I’m surely doing myself a grave disservice by not showing off how many of them I’ve read so far this year. And how better to do that, than by encouraging discussions about the books they were in?

If my brief seductions below work their magic then (or if you’d just like to show everyone how smart you are yourself!), please let your feelings known in the comments—or in my Zoom talk tomorrow, which is still open for registrations! :)

1. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (1992) by Lynda Nead, 2.5/5

Nead is insightful on pornography and feminist art here, but frustrates the reader with only 108 pages of text and images before the endnotes, wasting most of them on a somewhat incoherent philosophical argument.

2. Dalí (1996) by Gilles Néret, 2.5/5.

With barely any painting mentioned that isn’t also provided, this visual feast is a great book to inspire further interest in the artist, and would have been especially welcome in the pre-internet age it was published. Unfortunately however, that inspiration is about all it provides today, as Dalí’s other artworks in other media are almost completely ignored, and Néret’s fast-paced prose lacks even basic biographical information.

3. The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910–1945 (2008) by Theodore Jun Yoo, 4/5.

An excellent source on the conditions for female factory workers in particular. Only 4/5 though, for ending so abruptly when it feels like you’re actually only halfway through, and which leaves flustered ebook readers worried that their file has been corrupted!

4. The Youth of Early Modern Women (2018), ed. by Elizabeth Storr Cohen and Margaret Reeves, 5/5.

A very eye-opening reveal of the methods, possibilities, and richness of this hitherto “hidden” history, with short, very readable chapter lengths and a wide variety of topics also being a bonus. Of much more relevance to studying women in later periods and/or non-European socities than its title would seem to seem to suggest, I’m very eager to apply its lessons to analyzing modern-day Korea!

5. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (2006) by Mel Gordon, 3.5/5.

A wild account of a wild time and place. Yet surprisingly short for all the research that clearly went into it, and very frustrating to read due its awkward two-column format and overabundance of images.

6. Intimate Japan: Ethnographies of Closeness and Conflict (2018) ed. by Allison Alexy and Emma E. Cook (2018), 4/5 (OPEN ACCESS).

Many frustratingly short and uneven chapters, but overall a must-read that exposed big gaps in my knowledge and challenged preconceptions I didn’t realize I had. Has many, many parallels to Korea too.

7. Erotic Ambiguities: The female nude in art (2000) by Helen McDonald, 3/5

McDonald is an excellent read when on the solid ground of describing feminist art, and the politics thereof. But her vague, wordy writing style is much less convincing when applied to more abstract topics in later chapters, which are also somewhat outdated.

8. The Politics of the Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World (2006) by Ketu Katrak, 1.5/5.

Many insights here, but unfortunately its theme-based approach covering women writers from former British colonies in, Africa, the Caribbean, and especially India will quickly overwhelm any reader not already intimately familiar with British colonial history, and often it can frankly be quite a challenge to determine which continent the author is actually discussing in any particular paragraph. This is a pity, because had Katrak confined her study to one region, and provided some historical context, this could have been a much more accessible and popular book.

9. Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (2010) by Kathleen Rooney, 5/5.

A slim but surprisingly deep, erudite discussion on art, the history of nude modelling, and public perceptions of beauty, told through the author’s own experiences. Recommended!

10. Migrant Conversions: Transforming Connections between Peru and South Korea (2020) by Erica Vogel, 4.5/5 (OPEN ACCESS).

A fascinating look at a community that I frankly didn’t know existed, with much to teach about Korean immigration and religion in the process.

11. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (2001) by Gillian Rose 4/5.

Reading this in 2021, naturally this first edition was a little outdated in its coverage. It was also surprisingly and ironically lacking in images in later chapters, and would have really benefited from including some practical case studies. But it remains a good introduction overall, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the 4th edition (2016), which at twice the length probably addresses many of those shortcomings.

12. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction (2008) by Veronique Mottier, 2/5.

With only 150 pages to devote to the subject, an impossible task for any author, but Mottier’s disjointed, WEIRD-focused attempt still disappointed nonetheless. Much better for the series would have been several regional or country introductions instead.

13. Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin, 2.5/5.

A universal, well-told story, but unfortunately the final Part 3 of the book feels very rushed, the main characters’ unexpected, Crime and Punishment-like transformations coming across as very sudden and inauthentic. A real missed opportunity.

14. Breasts and Eggs (2020) by Mieko Kawakami, 5/5.

A surprisingly universal story with only light touches of its Japanese setting, my only complaints are the frequent vivid dream/vision sequences, ironic for whom are otherwise such realistic characters. Still, totally worth the hype!

15. Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal (2002) ed. by Tom Reichert & Jacqueline Lambiase, 3.5/5.

A very uneven volume, with chapters ranging from outstanding and insightful to vacuous and full of jargon. Generally though, it was very educational and relevant, even two decades later.

16. High-Rise: A Novel (1975) by J. G. Ballard, 2.5/5.
Growing up with many of Ballard’s novels in my father’s bookshelves, I’ve come to expect that I have to make many suspensions of disbelief to enjoy them. But this particular one started off much more grounded and realistic than most, so that it rapidly turned fantastical anyway came as a big disappointment, compounded by the lack of any real conclusion. Although the book is often hailed as a social commentary on class and apartment living then, in my opinion it’s anything but, Ballard squandering that opportunity by having all its protagonists quickly losing themselves into his typical dreamlike fugues.

17. Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature (1974) by Thor Heyerdahl, 3/5.
An extraordinary man tells about the first extraordinary location he visited—what’s not to like? Yet 25 years after my first reading, my eyes frequently glazed over at his overly histrionic writing style, his philosophical musings about humanity, nature, and civilization frankly not particularly insightful. Had he spent that time giving more voice to his wife accompanying him instead, on providing more practical details on how they accomplished their shared trip and survived on the island, and/or on what he saw there that compelled him to launch his Kon-Tiki expedition 10 years later, I could have seen myself rereading this at least a third time.

Based on my skim-reading however, Senor Kon-Tiki: Thor Heyerdahl (1967) by his friend Arnold Jacoby does appear to fill many of those gaps, so I’ll look forward to that.

18. Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality (2015) by Rosalind S. Chou, 3/5.

An informative and pertinent work, marred by an unceasing victimhood narrative and a dogmatic insistence that nobody can overcome their socialization, prejudices, and racial stereotypes when choosing a romantic partner.

19. Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface (2005) by Adeline Masquelier (ed.), 4/5.

One of those books that takes a close look at things you took for granted, only to make you realize how culturally specific the meanings you attached to them were—and how profoundly gendered.

Also, very serendipitous to have read before Filthy Fictions: Asian American Literature by Women (2004) by Monica Chiu, which by coincidence I’m finishing as I type this.

20. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America (1992) by Asunción Lavrin (ed.), 5/5.

One day in March 1997, I had to read a chapter in this for a Latin American history assignment. A woman sitting across from me in the university library was so intrigued by the title, she was easily persuaded to become my first girlfriend shortly thereafter.

Never underestimate the seductive power of a good book 🤓

(Which it is. Age having robbed me of my rose-tinted glasses, I expected to be thoroughly disappointed upon a rereading. But in fact, it’s even more informative and interesting than I remembered!)

21. Armies of the Caliphates 862-1098 (1998) by David Nicolle, 3.5/5.

Because sometimes you just have to linger over a brief, lavishly illustrated guide like this, and let your historical imagination go wild…

22. To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) by Robert Heinlein, 3/5.

A favorite childhood author (which if you know him, explains a lot!), I enjoyed rereading these memoirs of the sassy AF Maureen Long. But the story becomes a mess when it starts focusing less on her than on her time-traveling relatives.

23. The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II (1997) by Iris Chang, 1.5/5.

Without disputing (most of) the harrowing facts presented about the massacre, nor Chang’s invaluable service in raising public awareness of it in the West, I simply can’t recommend this terribly written history.

24. The Woman in the Purple Skirt (2021) by Natsuko Imamura. 1.5/5.

Persuaded to buy this after watching @FestiveBuoy‘s (a.k.a. Books & Bao) video review, I was disappointed to find it only mildly amusing, much too short to find deeper meanings in, and to have a spectacularly underwhelming ending. Still, it’s always good to have one’s horizons expanded, and I have faith that I’ll enjoy the next book I discover through their excellent channel :)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

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