Blogiversary 5, and 5 Favorite Posts

pink-birthday-cupcake-with-a-candleThis week is my five year anniversary on this blog. And let the celebration and revelry in the streets commence!

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. []

downloadSeptember 13, 2010: No Future: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Jack Halberstam (with a little Queen Latifah in there too)

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. []

April 11, 2012: Miscalculating Interests: The Maternal and the Material in The House of Mirth

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. []

Plot Junkie: Station Eleven: A Novel, Emily St. John Mandel

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. 

Hitting Reset

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.

School Clothes (when you’re the teacher)

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.

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? 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 grade? Do I believe the excuses? Where do I draw the line? God.

A lot of those were the right questions. And all of them were completely up to me– others could give advice, but what I decided about my classroom persona or the amount of leeway I gave a student was ultimately all on me.

Not to be shallow (*insert entirely legitimate feminist rant about the ways that women are judged for their appearance, the ways that women have to prove authority in ways that men don’t, the difficulty of blending power and beauty in a way that is socially acceptable… and many others) 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.

This is a super cute capsule teacher’s wardrobe. And this. And this.

Any questions? Send them my way! I don’t know everything, but I know more than I did!

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.

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.