What are you reading? Jan 5

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.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai1. 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.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell2. 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.

This week in pictures

This was my last full week of vacation. It was quite lovely–we’ve been spending the holidays with my aunt in Kentucky. Several years ago she inherited the family home, a beautiful old white house on the shore of the Kentucky river. The house was built in 1855 by a river captain for his bride–we even had a widow’s walk, until an electrical fire about a decade ago required a new roof.

The house is gorgeous, but the setting is even better (even though the history is a little dark.) In the mid-1960’s, the town fell victim to the TVA’s appropriation of land as the river was being tamed by the installation of dams. Most of the inhabitants (many of whom had been in their homes for generations) were removed to a new spot a few miles away; we really have no idea why our house was not one of the condemned. Houses larger than ours, more historic than ours, were flattened, the house in the lot immediately adjoining ours was flattened–but ours survived.

There’s a lot of emotion about this in the area: while it’s admitted that the river was dangerous (every decade or so since its founding, the town flooded) so many people were displaced and dispossessed. I’m torn–my better self is sympathetic and horrified at the trauma inflicted (much of it unnecessary, as a good proportion of the flattened and condemned lots were not actually in the path of water)… but my selfish self knows that my house–our acres on the lakefront–would be completely different if still on the town-square, separated from the water by a half-mile of streets and shops and houses. I have trouble with this: regretting the dispossession of so many implicates me and my enjoyment of this lovely place… and I need this place. I sometimes feel like it’s the only place I can breathe. (Since I had absolutely nothing to do with either the decision to flood nor the protection of this house, guilt is a futile emotion [as guilt usually is]. But still, I have trouble regretting what has happened. Though I should. I think I should. Perhaps I should?)

Regardless of all this mental entanglement, this place is gorgeous.Displaying IMG_0602.JPG

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Besides sitting on the shore, watching the waves, I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading and knitting and organizing for the upcoming year. I got lots of books for Christmas–(more on that tomorrow!)–and a lovely stash of yarn that I just can’t wait to get cracking on. And a set of planners that I absolutely adore.

Displaying IMG_0631.JPGAll of this lovely, squishy, so-soft yarn… and an entire set of interchangable circulars, and a zillion patternbooks…love love love.Displaying IMG_0632.JPG

 It’s possible that I’m prouder of this cabled sweater (part) than anything else I’ve done. Ever.

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I looked for eons for the right planner… and it turned out to be 2 instead of 1. My keep-everything-straight (and carry with me) planner is the Kate Spade in front (isn’t it beeeyoutiful?) and my reflect on the day/plan tomorrow is the turquoise in back. Love them both.

Plotting the books (Reading Plan for 2015)

I love New Year’s, primarily because I love making plans. I basically live in the shame spiral of self-critique (did I do enough today? Why did I read that/ eat that/ watch that/ neglect that?) (Yes, I know that’s not healthy, and that attitude of self-critique also plays into that shame spiral. Fun!) But New Year’s is a chance to look at all that and turn the page. To think about where you are and where you want to be, and to plan the journey. While during the year my decisions for the future always carry some sense of propitiation (I did this yesterday, so therefore I have to [begin panic breathing] do this today), I don’t feel like that at New Year’s. I just get to enjoy the feeling of time, of this space stretching out in front of me that I can fill with all the things that are important to me. These books are important to me. They're just so preeettty. One of my favorite things to plan in the new year is what I’m going to read. I’ve set and hit my goal of 100 books pretty regularly since I’ve been recording my reading, so for the past few years it’s been more about how I’m dividing up that number. It’s like creating a syllabus for yourself: I get to identify what is important to me, what I want to learn, and make that happen.

My favorite reading plan so far has been in 2012. (I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that I had a little more time for things like this before grad school started!) In 2012, I chose a major work or author to focus on each month–after that, I could read whatever, but in January I read Les Miserables, in February I read Anna Karenina (seemed appropriate), in April I read a bunch of Wharton, in May I read The Count of Monte Cristo… all books I’d never read before, and that I felt that any self-respecting literature student (and eventual teacher) should have under his or her fabulous belt. It was a little intense (some of those books are crazy long!) but well worth it. I pushed myself to finish books and research (learned more about the aftermath of the revolution in French society than I knew there was to know) and I would never have gotten that much done had it not been for the goals I set.

So I believe in goals. They help me accomplish things. Otherwise, I’d just lie around rereading my favorite books, and, while I would indeed benefit from yet another reading of Possession or Gaudy Night (and chances are, those will get read this year too) at least this way maybe I’ll find a few new favorites too.

2015 Book Goals: 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor HugoRead 100 books (obviously). Of those, this breakdown:

  • Read 100 short stories (which will count for 10 novels).
  • 10 biographies or memoirs (Colette, Tina Fey, Beauvior, Strayed)
  • 10 nonfiction (heavy on Victorian society, maybe another Bill Bryson?)
  • 10 critical theory (desire, death, supernatural, gothic, gender) (my life in a nutshell!)
  • 20 canonical or should-be canonical novels (2 Dickens, 2 Wilkie Collins, 1 Victor Hugo, 2 other sensation novels… some mid-20th century? Booker short list? something in translation?)
  • 40 free choice (Reread Harkness? Reread Glen Duncan? Finish Byatt’s Fredricka novels?)

Goals beyond book choices:

  • Read actively. With a pen in hand. Make notes. (At least for everything but novels.) (Maybe novels?)
  • Write about what I’ve read. Every single book. And be a little more critical, a little less adoring. Weekly/Monthly blog section?

And those are my plans for the upcoming year. And you? Any great and glorious reading plans for the new year? Do tell!

Favorite books of 2014

I read a lot this year. (Who am I kidding, I read a lot every year! And I love it!) These were my favorites–the top ten out of the 100 or so that I finished. So, if you haven’t read ’em, you should do so immediately!

interested in the whole list? find it here

1.) The Meaning of Night: A Confession, and The Glass of Time; Michael Cox

I wrote about these back in May (read what I said then here.) Amazing books, and on my “2015 reread” list. Apart, they’re excellent, but together they create a world of intricate layers of revenge, inheritance drama, romance, and deceit. Highly recommended.

2.) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; Michael Chabon 

I wrote about this book here and here. Loved it, will reread. I’m always impressed by books that illuminate something–not that there is a direct causal line between Hitler and the American golden age of comics, but that the darkness, perhaps, explains a bit of the popularity.

Besides any sort of illumination, it’s an excellent story. Joe’s escape from Prague, Sammy’s navigation of streets, the success and failure that they both experience–all such good stuff.

Front Cover3.) Belle Cora; Philip Marguiles

A wealthy widow dies in San Francisco in 1919, leaving truly shocking memoirs. I liked the voice of the narrator–she was charming and irreverent–but I absolutely loved the world that was traced. San Francisco in the late 19th century… just ridiculously fascinating.

4.) All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I read All the Light way too fast (one huge gulp on summer vacation), so this is one that I intend to read again in 2015. Even with the ridiculous pace, this is one I loved. Marie-Laure is blind, and negotiates her neighborhood by memory after her father makes her small model of the streetsaround. Werner is a wunderkind with electronics, and is so drawn into the Hitler Youth movement. The novel is huge, sprawling, resists summary. But excellent.

5.) The Magicians Land, Lev Grossman

I absolutely love these books. I’ve read the first two any number of times, but since the last came out this year, it makes the list.  I grew up on the Narnia books and Lewis’s immersed theology was close enough to my Baptist missionary parents’ that it didn’t even register as a message. OF COURSE the lion dies on the altar and is resurrected… what else?

So these books are a little like coming home, but coming home as I am now, disillusioned about the quest and the purpose, just trying to survive in the great, wide world. That perhaps seems a bit overly dramatic…. but the move from purposive fundamentalism to randomization is difficult, and what I love most about these books is the portrayal of that awakening. I like the arc of the series: an initial dependence on an alternate world to save you, to give your life meaning, then the ultimate realization that that whole idea is a bit preposterous and it takes a little more work to find meaning in the mundane. Love.

The Girl with All the Gifts.jpg6.) The Girl with All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

Melanie’s school is a little different. To begin with, everyone seems to be afraid of her and the other students–the teachers maintain a space between themselves and the children, at night they are locked into metal cells, the soldiers seem to be in charge of everything. And every-so-often, one of the other students disappears.One day, the soldiers come to take Melanie away… and then, all hell breaks loose.

I started this book about fifteen minutes before bed and finally went to bed 70 minutes later, only to wake up repeatedly to consider whether it was worth getting up to finish or just to wait until morning. The story is really great, but the narrative voice is possibly even better.  Melanie’s struggle to piece it together was just so real, everything that happens… I hate spoilers, so nevermind, but this was great.

7.) The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

Absolutely amazing. Up there with The English Patient and The Hours.

Leo Grutsky has survived many things. He’s survived war, and famine, and disappointment, and a new life, and love. Now, he just focuses on surviving the day–he lives alone, but doesn’t want to die on a day that he hasn’t been seen. So he draws attention to himself–spilling coins in line for coffee, colliding with a display at the corner shop–anything to remind the world that he still exists.

Alma Singer is worried about her mother. Her father died two years ago, and her mother has walled herself behind the books: books that she loves, books that she studies, books that she translates. One day, a work order for the translation of The History of Love arrives at the house. The book is part of the family lore: her father loved it, gave it to her mother, Alma is named after a girl in the book.

Leo dreams of his long-lost Alma, and Alma tries to keep her family safe, and their stories are inexorably drawing them together.

8.) Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout 

I’m took a creative writing class last semester, and it was odd. I’m so used to talking about books–that’s all I do, actually–but my primary focus is always the themes and power structures–not necessarily how an author creates . So in reading this I was especially focused on the structure of the stories–what is suggested, what emotions are felt but not identified, what is left in the reader’s mind to imagine, what is actually told… all of that. And wow, is this a beautifully written book. Kind of dreadful–there are emotions, pain, that I just don’t want to read about. I don’t want to feel it, even through the lens of an imagined character. The loneliness. Betrayal. Guilt. Confusion. Most of all, the loneliness. I think that’s the overwhelming feeling that I came away from this book with–the solitary condition of mankind. Everybody’s story is one that no one else knows. Even the one living their solitary life alongside yours–there are depths of feeling and minor hurts that they’ll never know, never understand, pebbles of hurt that make all the difference. And not just the solitude, but the recognition of loneliness. The effort, or the longing, for a connection. The tension between a desire for privacy and a desire to live a communal life. The self is conceived of in relationships.

I think that’s why Olive, the character, is such a masterpiece. The book as a whole is excellent, I love the structure, though it took me a few stories to really get into the groove. But Olive–she’s so flawed, but so individual. So unique. Completely relateable, not in the way that ‘she is like me’ but in the way that we all have these little potholes of irreconcilable emotion, of the bits of us that just don’t make sense, that are as unique and as individual as a crooked tooth.

9.) The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

A. J. is a bookseller on a remote island off the Massachusetts bay. He moved there with his wife, who grew up there–since her death two years ago, he has become more and more of a recluse. He dreams of selling a first edition and escaping… but before he can, everything changes. The plot is great, but more than what happens to A. J. is how he sees the world–he explains and understands the world through his favorite books–short book reviews intersperse the chapter and tell as much about the character as it does the world being painted. I particularly loved the way Zevin talks about books, the love of books, the way you inhabit your favorite books, how the stories you read are as real to you as anything else in your life.

Death at the Chateau Bremont (A Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery, #1)Murder in the Rue Dumas: A Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery (Verlaque and Bonnet Mysteries Book 2)Death in the Vines: A Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery (Verlaque and Bonnet Mysteries Book 3)10.) M. L. Longworth books

These books are really great. Antoine Verlaque, the chief magistrate of Aix, and his on-again, off- again love interest, law professor Marine Bonnet, investigate crimes around the countryside in southern France. Longworth does such a great job of writing the relationship between Bonnet and Verlaque. You get both perspectives, both seem like individuals–neither is just a foil to round out the primary character. I started these because the covers were just so cool, kept reading because I liked the setting (a critic said that Longworth does for southern France what Frances Mayes did for Tuscany–since I love Mayes, these were a no-brainer), but I’ll reread because of the relationship. Good stuff.

11.) Yes, Please, Amy Poehler

And finally, the incomparable. So many quotable lines, so much funny, so much insight. She talks about feminism. And sex. And more feminism. So good.

#sorrynotsorry

Once upon a time, my mentor gave me a framed motto that says something like “Don’t apologize, don’t retreat, get the thing done and let them roar.” She said she had it on her desk when she was in grad school and starting her career, and since I had (have?) the same propensity to constant apology, I should maybe try to work on that. Apologizing, especially when it isn’t needed, just makes you seem weak*.

And so, although I always feel a little odd coming back to my blog after a long absence–like the friend you just got too busy for, emphasizing the extenuating circumstances for the neglect in a transparent bid for sympathy and forgiveness–I’m coming back, and without an apology, except, of course, for that rather surreptitious one that is providing the subtext for this whole blog post. Yep, you noticed. You’re so smart.

I have big things going on next year. Don’t we all? I’m officially done with the MA in Literature from American University (yay!) and, just for funsies, while I was there I picked up a graduate certificate in gender. And because of all that lovely education, I get to teach a gender course next semester! I’m over the moon–I’m spending the next two weeks writing my syllabus and planning the first few weeks of classes. I’ve taught before, but it wasn’t on the university level. So perhaps a leeetle intimidating. I have 40 students. In my first class. Yup, maybe a little intimidating.

And I’m applying to PhD programs in literature. Most of my applications were due mid-December, but I’m still gathering the stragglers. So I’m either moving to a new location in a few months (eek!) or completely freaking out about my future prospects if I don’t get in anywhere. Either one is completely possible. (It’ll be ok, either way. I have a job in the field, so mostly it’d just be embarrassing not to succeed. So so embarrassing. Horrors.)

Anyway, like that friend you keep meaning to call but avoid because there is just so much that has happened, here’s the getting-caught-up post. More to come about all of the fun stuff that I’m doing next year, so stay tuned!

*It’s a gender thing: women consider their behavior to require apology 37% more frequently than men: http://www.centenary.edu/attachments/psychology/journal/archive/nov2010journalclub.pdf. Of course, any thinking person would question why men’s behavior is considered the standard, and wonder how long women have to be in the workforce before “professional” doesn’t just mean “how the old boys club has always done it.” But I suspect that’s a rant for another day.