I’ve had simply splendid week– long days of work, reading on the front porch during afternoon downpours, dog walks, cat cuddles, eureka moments, house to myself, peace. Here are a few of the particulars that have given my days texture.
In honor of this auspicious event, I’m reposting five of my favorite posts. These aren’t necessarily the most clicked or linked, or the ones with the most comments… these are the ones I like. Because it’s my birthday. Kinda sorta.
So, without further ado…
April 24, 2012: Endings. Beginnings. And Adrienne Rich.
In her essay “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” Adrienne Rich says,
“It’s hard to look back on the limits of my understanding a year, five years ago—how did I look without seeing, hear without listening? It can be difficult to be generous to earlier selves, and keeping faith with the continuity of our journeys is especially hard in the United States, where identities and loyalties have been shed and replaced without a tremor, all in the name of becoming….”
I love that, the reminder to be generous to our past selves, to try to understand our mistakes and complications and the things that seem so stupid later. The essay as a whole is talking about Rich’s transition from a second wave to a third wave perspective—she says she initially thought the category “Woman” to outweigh all other categories of nationality or religion (a traditionally second wave perspective), but then, later, she saw the problems with that generalization. Her change in perspective is historically interesting, but her acceptance of her changes is what I find most fascinating. She accepts that humans aren’t static. When we’re wrong, sometimes we think we’re right. We don’t know everything yet. And that’s ok. […]
December 27, 2011: Plot Junkie: Mordant’s Need
The first time I read these books I was in Bible college, taking a children’s literature class. Although for most classes we confined ourselves to the campus library (heavy on John R. Rice and Charles Spurgeon, praisejesus), for this class we needed some slightly more, um, popularly acclaimed texts. We were to read 100 Caldecott or Newbery winners and write a short summary of each, including themes, major characters and plot points. The idea was that once we were educators, we’d have a personal anthology of reading material to suggest for students. You know, stuff like “read Johnny Tremain when your hand is melted together in a freak bullet-making accident.” Definitely not a terrible idea—if I planned to teach in junior high or high school, (and if I didn’t already have five zillion book suggestions at my [thankfully not melted together] fingertips) it would have been very helpful. […]
I spent last weekend dreaming about selling my somewhat meager belongings and moving to Italy. (I was reading Frances Mayes. I’m susceptible.) I still wish I could move, and the fact that I backed down seems less a triumph of common sense over recklessness than a cowardly taking of the safe track. I need a safety net and a five year plan- I hate it, but that is, apparently, who I am.
All of that goes to establishing mindset. This is why I was watching Last Holiday, a movie I’ve seen before and judged really crappy somewhat substandard then, LL Cool J notwithstanding. I long for that kind of freedom, for the sheer impulsivity that is officially allowed (by whom? I’m not sure…society at large? community? common sense? the last, of course, is just the internalization of the formers’ judgments… they- the ever-threatening “they” catch us coming and going) when the longevity question- the planning for tomorrow bit- is taken off the table. (I’m reminded, as I so frequently am, of Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: who would I be, what would my life look like, if I weren’t so pre-occupied with my own futurity? ) In the elimination of the idea of the future in The Blue Castle and Last Holiday the protagonists are given the freedom to travel, to speak their minds, to quit crap jobs, to be—truly be—in the moment. […]
September 24, 2012: Fragmented Conversations
Roland Barthes says the “fragment breaks up what I would call the smooth finish, the composition, discourse constructed to give a final meaning to what one says” (209). He was talking about writing articles and discrete paragraphs instead of book-length works, but that idea of breaking up the smooth finish caught me. And while Barthes might have been horrified to be invoked as blog-philosopher (probably not, he seems pretty cool) this exchange of the fragment for the finished product struck a note with me. […]
I loved the book. I sympathized with Lily, though I kind of despised some of her decisions. Her movement through the novel is like this inexorable slide from respectability to utter bleakness. She keeps sabotaging herself: at a pivotal moment, she blows off an appointment with the eminently suitable (though dull) suitor whom she has been chasing all weekend, allowing a horror of a fellow guest to poison his mind against her; she (possibly nobly, but still) refuses to use the letters that have fallen into her hand which would have rectified her social (and thus economic) difficulties; she basically just makes really short-sighted decisions regarding some of the characters who very obviously don’t have her interests at heart. Although she seems to be so fitted for the society life, she is repeatedly unable to manage the negotiations that are necessary.
I thought it interesting that Lily herself mourns her dead mother specifically because she would have managed those negotiations for her. […]
The best book I’ve read this year is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: A Novel. It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful, it’s intoxicating, it’s all the wonderful things that a book should be and more. In my humble and personal. Here’s what I had to say about it back in January, after my first reading:
In a genre that is getting a little full (post-apocalyptic road stories), this one stands out. I read this in one long and slightly feverish gulp, in bed recovering from a bout of the flu in the middle of a snow-storm. If there is a better way to read a novel about the collapse of civilization following an epidemic, I’m not sure what it is.
I read so much that often the experience of reading is lost–I read on the metro and in between classes, I read while the water in the shower is heating up and the coffee is brewing. I often read while I walk. I remember the plots, but not myself while reading. There are a few exceptions–I remember the first time I read The Woman in White–I’d been dreading it, because it was so long and I had to get it done in three days, and I enjoyed it so much that I read it in one (very long) sitting, curled up in the arm chair I inherited from my grandfather, drinking cup after cup of scalding orange pekoe in my sun-dappled living room, with the pets stretched out in the floor. I remember the first time I read Little Women, on a road trip up to Grandma’s house, nestled in the back of the station wagon with suitcases and Christmas gifts all around.
I’ll remember when and where I read this. Perfect setting to read such a good book.
Station Eleven traces the effects of a global pandemic on a few survivors. Twenty years after 99.99% (estimated–there is no way to verify in the new world) of the world’s population dies, after technology collapses, after the gasoline goes bad, when the world once more becomes huge and unknowable, The Traveling Symphony moves from camp to camp, putting on Shakespearean dramas and playing the music of Brahms and Beethoven. Their motto is from a line from Star Trek: Because survival is not enough. Humans play music and sing songs and tell stories because imagination is a necessary human function. The book is preoccupied with what it means to be human, with what it means to be civilized, with how much of our understanding of the world is dependent on the people in our world. I loved this take on the post-apocalyptic.
And beside the themes, which I loved, the structure of the book was just amazing. One of the problems with an apocalyptic novel is that they tend to be so unremittingly bleak. We once had it all, and everything fell apart. Woe is me. In stories of “after,” people are always looking backward. It can make the movement of the story stutter, halt, never really get going. This, instead, moved back and forth between long before and just before and after and later after, in story lines that were connected enough and memorable enough to stay clear, but not actually directly interwoven. Brilliantly done.
And the language! It’s just gorgeous. It’s concise and vivid, and at times wings into a metaphor or phrase that is so beautiful that you heart just clenches.
Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.
This is the last sentence of the first chapter. Wham. (That’s not a spoiler as the pandemic obviously hadn’t happened yet, and so was inevitably coming. )
He’d been able to see reasonably well with an extremely thick pair of glasses, but he’d lost these six years ago and since then he’d lived in a confusing landscape distilled to pure color according to season— summer mostly green, winter mostly gray and white—in which blurred figures swam into view and then receded before he could figure out who they were. He couldn’t tell if his headaches were caused by straining to see or by his anxiety at never being able to see what was coming, but he did know the situation wasn’t helped by the first flute, who had a habit of sighing loudly whenever the seventh guitar had to stop rehearsal to ask for clarification on the score that he couldn’t see.
I think I love the above because it’s such a beautiful expression of my greatest fear about the loss of civilization–without it, I’d be blind as a bat. I was reading Outlander the other day (giving it a try, it still hasn’t grabbed me) and had the realization that if I fell through stones in Scotland, I’d have about a week before my contacts were so dry that they were unwearable. And then I’d be blind. And dependent. And would die. Time-travel fantasy is not for the nearly blind. It’s possible I’m being a bit too literal about time-travel fantasy.
This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.
The words just sing, don’t they? There are about a million more lines and phrases that I noted for their sheer beauty and craft, but you should find them yourself.
I read this for the first time in January, then I read it again in April, I’ve listened to the audio book and am contemplating a fourth return. I’m a rereader–if I liked a book the first time, the chances that I’ll want to return to that world are high. But that’s a lot, even for me. So, in my personal and humble, you should read it.
I’ve been in a bit of a tailspin the last few months. Something that was supposed to happen didn’t happen, and I didn’t really have a contingency plan or any concept of how to deal with failure.
I didn’t get accepted to a PhD program. Writing that still makes my stomach clench. I think this is my first actual failure at something I cared about–I mean, I’ve done poorly in science and math classes, but who cares? I’m a book person–c’mmon, ask me anything–and everything else is secondary. Always.
There are reasons I didn’t get in. Well, there is one very glaring reason–there was a problem with my recommendation letters and my applications weren’t complete. And those who love me have told me repeatedly in the last few months that nobody even looks at an incomplete application, that if it was a failure, it was a failure to followup, not a failure of intellect or whatever. Sometimes I believe them. And sometimes I’m not so sure.
So I’ve been spinning out.
About five years ago I was in a terrible wreck– I was headed home in one of those sudden summer downpours in South Carolina, and hit a patch of rain and did about four complete spins in the middle of the highway, hitting the center median at each rotation. I had no control and the blows just kept coming. I (obviously) survived. I crawled out the passenger door, threw up on the side of the road, and called for help. I was fine. My car was totaled. Kind of amazing, actually, that it turned out so well. But it was terrifying. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
I don’t know what is going to happen next here. I’ve had such a clear plan for so long– when I found out that my unaccredited Bible college undergrad degree wouldn’t let me go to grad school, I redid my undergrad. All four years. I finished my Master’s. I’m supposed to be packing up to move to PhD now. That’s the plan. Finish my PhD, get a job teaching literature and gender studies, write and garden and read in the long, hot summers. I kind of tuned out the so-frequent articles about the demise of academia, the warnings from professors about the difficulty of finding a job, the distinct possibility that the life I envisioned existed only in novels. I didn’t want to have to question the plan, or think about the plan–it’s so much easier to just keep doing the work and turning in the papers and assume that it’s all just going to turn out right if you stand by your plan.
One of the hardest things about leaving religion is having to make your own plan. I grew up Independent Baptist– religions are different everywhere, but what that meant in our family was that every person has a God-ordained purpose, that all things work together, that if you have faith, then it’s ok if you don’t see the big picture. That’s what God is for. And leaving that was wrenching. Not leaving God–if I believed in God then I wouldn’t have left–but losing that sense of purpose, of knowing where you fit. Without religion, you have to figure out the plan on your own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing–there is a freedom in not having the path set for you, in striking out on your own, in making your own decisions that I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago, when the way was ordained and deviation was unimaginable… but it’s also a little terrifying. Without some overarching purpose–that ideology bigger than yourself–then you have to give your life meaning. You decide your life’s meaning. You make the choices.
So that’s why I’ve been spinning. I’m not great with choices–I avoid them. I’ve been hiding under the covers, inhaling books like a chain smoker, pouring one more glass of wine, marathoning seasons and series in days, sleeping on the couch with the TV on, terrified of my own thoughts, of failure, of the wrong choice– terrified of everything.
So I’m hitting reset. I’m working to find the ideas that inspire me, that make me feel a bit more sure, those things that make me feel most like my ideal me. It’s hard to care about pictures of flowers when you fear cataclysmic changes are coming, but if pictures of flowers help, then pictures of flowers it will be. Better fiction. Poetry. Long walks. Museums. I want to write more–both here and fiction. I’ve been so worried about the future that I’ve lost the last few months. But I don’t want to lose any more. So I’m hitting reset.
In January, shortly after my last post here (wow, did this whole blogging thing get away from me!) I began teaching two sections of a Gen Ed gender course at AU. Two times a week (Monday and Thursday), 80 students expected me to know and to share what exactly was going on with all this sexism stuff. The class was amazing. I had no idea I was going to enjoy teaching so much. I’ve always been the research person –give me a book from 1850, an abstract theory, and a spot upon which to stand and I can move the world–but this real-world application stuff was kind of mind-blowing.
While I had advice available, one of the biggest problem that I faced as I was preparing for the semester is just that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what questions to ask, and suddenly, in six weeks (the amount of time between signing the paperwork and starting the class) I was moving from behind the desk to the front of the classroom–a few short feet, in reality, ideologically, a huge span.
What do I wear? Nothing I’ve seen on a professor looks like “me.” Do I really have to get that dressed up? How do I prepare? How do I lead discussion? How do I manage time? How do you get students to talk? What if they aren’t prepared? What if I fall down or my fly is unzipped? How do I grade? Do I believe the excuses? Where do I draw the line? God.
A lot of those were the right questions. And I’m here, for you, with the answers as I’ve learned them.
Not to be shallow (*insert entirely legitimate feminist rant about feeling shallow for caring about the impression you make on people*) but I was most concerned about what I was going to wear. I can fake academic pretty well (don’t we always feel like we’re faking it? No? Just me?) so I was relatively confident that I could figure out all the rest of it as I went along, as long as the students believed in me as a teacher and authority. So it mattered what I wore. It always matters, but it matters more when you’re in charge, it matters more when you’re teaching gender (or perhaps when you’re constantly analyzing your own gender performance), it just matters.
Your clothes are intensely personal (says the girl in liberal arts who hopes to never own a suit). I certainly didn’t revamp my entire style when I made the switch from grad student to adjunct faculty. But, in the words of that ridiculous Tampax commercial, it was time for an upgrade. My grad school style is this: hair in a bun, big earrings, scarf, long-sleeved t, skinny jeans, tall boots. I have enough iterations of that particular combination to wear that and nothing else for semesters at a time. And I have.
But. Sometimes that jeans and boots combo is a little too Jenny Cavilleri at Radcliffe. Sometimes your clothes need to say “adult.” So. At the beginning of the semester I bought a few shift-type dresses in comfortable, easy materials and colors (seriously, polyester blends, no wrinkling, good bit of stretch in there to make them fit well; colors: navy, black, brown.) (I haven’t ironed in a decade.) I bought two pairs of black pants that are cut just like my favorite skinny jeans (they can be tucked into my tall boots); I bought a blazer-y jacket that could be added to the long tee-shirt/scarf combo or thrown on over a sundress as I make the seasonal transition. I rarely step out of the house without a scarf wrapped around my neck or tied on my bag (to cover coffee stains, to use as a shawl if we go out after).
This worked perfectly for me, it kept me feeling like myself, not a suddenly corporate Stepford teacher. That said, I felt dreadfully silly the day I showed up in a shirt like one of my students–nothing quite as dreadful as feeling like you’re trying to be young just a little too hard (which I absolutely wasn’t! Everybody shops at Target, right?), so that made me evaluate where the more distinctive elements of my wardrobe came from, and move (most of) the sparkly bits to the weekend. The one day I busted out the sandals with a bit of a wedge, I regretted it. Stepped right out of that sucker while I was making a point, and that point never really did get made. My students could probably pick the shoes out of a lineup, though.
That, perhaps, is the point. Looking cute, looking stylish, looking like yourself–nothing wrong with that. Don’t have to look like a drudge. But the wardrobe shouldn’t be speaking more loudly than we are.
I did occasionally break out the jeans. Honestly, it didn’t even seem to matter. I decided at the beginning that I’d spend a few weeks in “grown up” clothes first (which I apparently classify as everything in my closet except my jeans) I didn’t see that it made any difference to anyone when I finally wore them. I teach better when I’m comfortable, though. Nothing like wondering if you’re showing cleavage while waxing eloquent about intersectionality.
Up next (tomorrow?): Writing and revising a syllabus and reading list. More fun than you’d think!
Any questions? Send them my way! I don’t know everything, but I know more than I did!
One of my goals this year is to write a bit more about what I read. Writing is tied to thinking (they aren’t separate actions–think then write. Rather, the act of writing–sifting through the detritus at the top of the brain to get down to the good stuff–inspires thought.) My tendency is to read and read and read without really stopping to think or analyze. So–while I can’t promise brilliance with any regularity–since I’m invested in thinking about what I read, I’m trying to write about what I read.
1. The Hundred-Year House, Rebecca Makkai
2014, 352 pgs, 1 of 40 Reader’s Choice
Fascinating, and a bit inconclusive. The structure, most of all, was just intriguing. Makkai tells the story in retrospect– 1999, then 1955, then 1929, then 1900. We get the ending, then a bit of the interior, and everything fits together, but how is not clear until the end. the unconventional timeline takes a good story and makes it great. I’ll definitely reread.
The Hundred-Year House is about the long history of an estate in northern Illinois–a lavish home, a debauched art colony, the place of many secrets–every generation has something else to find and something else to hide.
While I liked the way the book was set up, what really grabbed me was the description in the first section of the protagonist’s scholarly project:
At a department meeting later that same week, Zee reluctantly agreed to take the helm of a popular fall seminar. English 372 (The Spirit in the House: Ghosts in the British and American Traditions) consisted of ghost stories both oral and literary. It wasn’t Zee’s kind of course–she preferred to examine power structures and class struggles and imperialism, not things that go bump in the night–but she wasn’t in a position to say no. Doug would laugh when she told him.
I’ll eventually teach that class. AND I’ll teach it with power structures and class struggles and imperialism–this presumes a false separation, that imaginative fiction (ghost stories) have nothing to do with the material realities of the world. However. I love that Makkai has a scholar thinking about this stuff in her book. Makes me happy.
2. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
2014, 624 pgs, 2 of 40 Reader’s Choice
This is the third Mitchell that I’ve read–first was a long ago Audible version of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, then (of course) Cloud Atlas, and now this. And I feel I’d need three or four more rereads of each to be able to speak intelligently (i.e., craft any sort of argument or critical analysis) of the books.
But. I liked it very much. Mitchell requires (and, imho, deserves) a lot of attention. The plots are not straightforward. They twist, they turn, they curl back on themselves and rewrite what you thought you just figured out. Nothing is linear, or singular, or simple.
The Bone Clocks is, at the root, the story of a divine war and the repercussions on humanity. (Ok, I know the Atemporals et al are not actually divine, but that whole rebirth thing definitely puts them as more than human.) Reminded me of the Illiad in that respect: the battle of the gods, the casualties all human.
The book is divided into six novellas, each with a different protagonist, each divided from the previous by a decade or so. All of the stories are linked by character and by plot (that central battle between the Atemporals and the Anchorites: Atemporals are naturally rebirthed into a new body after death, Anchorites have found a way to stop aging on a cellular level through murder).
My favorite novella–the one I thought most well-written–was the second: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume (1991)”, which focuses on Cambridge undergraduate Hugo Lamb who is not, shall we say, exactly what he seems. Excellent sketch of a psychopath, without ever using the word, without anyone but the reader putting together all the pieces of his very fragmented lives.
3. The Devil’s Grin, A. Wendeberg
2012, 225 pgs, 3 of 40 Reader’s Choice
A. Kronberg is a doctor–and what’s more, the premier bacteriologist– in late Victorian London. The credentials the good doctor holds are impressive–even more so when it is revealed (by the third page, no spoilers here) that Anton Kronberg is really Anna Kronberg–short haircut, breast binding, and fake penis all employed in the singularly unfeminine goal of being a doctor. As all of her cross-dressing is in pursuit of employment, not in desire to express a felt gender, it seems ok to refer to her as Anna from here on out. Anna is called in to examine a cholera patient who has floated down the Thames. When she arrives, a tall, skinny, beaky nose man is bent almost double, examining the ground around the corpse. Yep, you guessed it, the intrepid Sherlock has beat our intrepid doctor to the scene.
Anna and Sherlock vie back and forth with their respective secrets: he sees through her male attire almost immediately, she has more insights into his character than are usually voiced in the canon… but soon they are distracted from their battle by the realization that this case of cholera doesn’t have any of the usual traits. Anna gets it back to the lab, and during a dissection, comes to believe that the corpse was infected purposely. Why anyone would do this, and who is behind the heinous crime–and how far it reaches–is a puzzle that neither Anna nor Sherlock could answer on their own.
I enjoyed this. (I have the next two books in this series and the prequel lined up on my dresser, so it’s a good thing I did!) I compare all Sherlock-ish stories to Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler series–while I might perhaps still prefer those (Sherlock always kind of grates on me, he doesn’t strike me as a romantic lead. At all. Honestly, more of a psychopath, but with a conscience, which is a contradiction… whatever.) So the romance angle didn’t grab me, but that’s primarily because I’m going into this with so many preconceptions about Sherlock. That aside, the mystery was good, I was impressed by the historical detail (especially the slums–h/t to Henry Mayhew), it was a quick read (and sometimes you really need a quick read), and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.
Really good part tracing the disassociation with her body that Anna, after dressing as Anton for several months round-the-clock, experiences. There’s a disjunction, a separation of mind and body, of thought and feeling, of brain and gender. In her guise as a cross-dresser, she sees “manly” and “feminine” as costumes to be inhabited rather than outworkings of some innate gender norm. There is perhaps a touch of a gender stereotype (Anna, as a doctor, cares more for the patients than the other doctors, presumably because of all that mushy woman’s emotion) but I think that could easily be read as resulting from the gender socialization as a woman (caring and nurturing, etc. ad infinitum) throughout the first 20 years of her life.
Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this week. Clearly, the Reader’s Choice category has been getting a workout… but it’s vacation, and so, as I will defiantly state to any who inquire, I’m allowed.