What to Read this Month: January 2020

For more exciting reads, check out our Overdrive, New and Noteworthy, and Current Literature collections.


Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance by Kelly A. Gates (online; physical copy requestable).

Facial Recognition Technology has been a hot topic lately, as Facebook just settled a facial recognition dispute, the EU is debating a 5-year ban on facial recognition technology in public areas, and China introduces facial recognition in pharmacies for people buying controlled medicines.

Since the 1960s, a significant effort has been underway to program computers to “see” the human face – to develop automated systems for identifying faces and distinguishing them from one another – commonly known as Facial Recognition Technology (FRT). While computer scientists are developing FRT in order to design more intelligent and interactive machines, businesses and state agencies view the technology as uniquely suited for “smart” surveillance – systems that automate the labor of monitoring in order to increase their efficacy and spread their reach.

Tracking this technological pursuit, Our Biometric Future identifies FRT as a prime example of the failed technocratic approach to governance, where new technologies are pursued as shortsighted solutions to complex social problems. Culling news stories, press releases, policy statements, PR kits, and other materials, Kelly Gates provides evidence that – instead of providing more security for more people – the pursuit of FRT is being driven by the priorities of corporations, law enforcement, and state security agencies – all convinced of the technology’s necessity and unhindered by its complicated and potentially destructive social consequences. By focusing on the politics of developing and deploying these technologies, Our Biometric Future argues not for the inevitability of a particular technological future, but for its profound contingency and contestability.


My Penguin Year: Living with the Emperors by Lindsay McCrae.

In 2018, the BBC Natural History Unit broadcast the nature documentary series Dynasties, narrated by David Attenborough. Dynasties follows individual lions, hunting dogs, chimpanzees, tigers, and emperor penguins “at the most critical period in their lives. Each is a ruler…determined to hold on to power and protect their family, their territory, and their dynasty.”

For the episode on emperor penguins, award-winning wildlife cameraman Lindsay McCrae intimately followed 11,000 emperor penguins for 337 days amid the singular beauty of Antarctica. My Penguin Year is his masterful chronicle of one penguin colony’s astonishing journey of life, death, and rebirth – and of the extraordinary human experience of living amongst them in the planet’s harshest environment, including 32 pages of exclusive photography.

A miracle occurs each winter in Antarctica. As temperatures plummet 60° below zero and the sea around the remote southern continent freezes, emperors – the largest of all penguins – begin marching up to 100 miles over solid ice to reach their breeding grounds. They are the only animals to breed in the depths of this, the worst winter on the planet; and in an unusual role reversal, the males incubate the eggs, fasting for over 100 days to ensure they introduce their chicks safely into their new frozen world.

My Penguin Year recounts McCrae’s remarkable adventure to the end of the Earth. He observed every aspect of a breeding emperor’s life, facing the inevitable sacrifices that came with living his childhood dream, and grappling with the personal obstacles that, being over 15,000km away from the comforts of home, almost proved too much. Out of that experience, he has written an unprecedented portrait of Antarctica’s most extraordinary residents.

We also have the 2006 animated musical comedy about emperor penguins, Happy Feet.


Gender: A Graphic Guide by Meg-John Barker, illustrated by Jules Scheele.

If you’re interested in gender and like graphic novels, look no further. Join the creators of Queer: A Graphic History on an illustrated journey of gender exploration.

From the authors:

“We’ll look at how gender has been ‘done’ differently – from patriarchal societies to trans communities – and how it has been viewed differently – from biological arguments for sex difference to cultural arguments about received gender norms. We’ll dive into complex and shifting ideas about masculinity and femininity, look at non-binary, trans and fluid genders, and examine the intersection of experiences of gender with people’s race, sexuality, class, disability and more.

“Tackling current debates and tensions, which can divide communities and even cost lives, we’ll look to the past and the future to ask how might we approach gender differently, in more socially constructive, caring ways.”


The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha, translated from the Thai by Kong Rithdee.

From the Asian Review of Books:

“Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.”

On the day Chareeya is born, her mother discovers her father having an affair with a traditional Thai dancer. From then on, Chareeya’s life is fated to carry the weight of her parents’ disappointments. She and her sister grow up in a lush riverside town near the Thai capital, Bangkok, captivated by trashy romance novels, classical music, and games of make-believe. When the laconic orphan, Pran, enters their world, he unwittingly lures the sisters into a labyrinth of their own making as they each try to escape their intertwined fates. The original Thai language edition of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth won the prestigious South East Asian Writers (“S.E.A. Write”) Award for fiction and was a best-seller in Thailand. It is translated into English by Thai film critic and recipient of France’s Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kong Rithdee. Attuned to the addictive rhythms of a Thai soap opera and written with the consuming intensity of a fever dream, this novel opens an insightful and truly compelling window onto the Thai heart.


Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic by Gergana Ivanova.

An eleventh-century classic, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon is frequently paired with The Tale of Genji as one of the most important works in the Japanese canon. Yet it has also been marginalized within Japanese literature for reasons including the gender of its author, the work’s complex textual history, and its thematic and stylistic depth. In Unbinding The Pillow Book, Gergana Ivanova offers a reception history of The Pillow Book and its author from the seventeenth century to the present that shows how various ideologies have influenced the text and shaped interactions among its different versions.

Ivanova examines how and why The Pillow Book has been read over the centuries, placing it in the multiple contexts in which it has been rewritten, including women’s education, literary scholarship, popular culture, “pleasure quarters,” and the formation of the modern nation-state. Drawing on scholarly commentaries, erotic parodies, instruction manuals for women, high school textbooks, and comic books, she considers its outsized role in ideas about Japanese women writers. Ultimately, Ivanova argues for engaging the work’s plurality in order to achieve a clearer understanding of The Pillow Book and the importance it has held for generations of readers, rather than limiting it to a definitive version or singular meaning. The first book-length study in English of the reception history of Sei Shōnagon, Unbinding The Pillow Book sheds new light on the construction of gender and sexuality, how women’s writing has been used to create readerships, and why ancient texts continue to play vibrant roles in contemporary cultural production.

We have English translations of The Pillow Book as well as the
Shinpen Nihon koten bungaku zenshû volume in our East Asian Collection.


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