Critical musings: modern vampires

…as late as 1922 a senior and well-respected doctor in the United States suggested that a woman who desired sexual intercourse more than “once in two weeks or ten days” was a danger to her husband: “It is to her that the name vampire can be applied in its literal sense. –Gothic Configurations of Gender.

Can’t make this stuff up.

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Thinking and Feeling: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

The New Yorker review on the back of The Argonauts says “Thinking and feeling are, for Nelson, mutually necessary processes; the result is an exceptional portrait of both a romantic partnership and of the collaboration between Nelson’s mind and heart.” I think that connection– thinking and feeling in concert, not opposition–is what so appeals to me about these books. They reconceptualize the mind vs. body dichotomy of Western philosophy, using the privileged category of the abstract mind (theoretical analysis of language and society and gender) to interrogate and understand the very personal (messy relationships and uncomfortable impulses and inexplicable emotions). I love this kind of thinking because that’s what I do in my life– perhaps not as eloquently or as coherently as either of these two authors, but that urge to understand the why of the self is powerful. And since I love theory, and on some level I trust theory, that’s the medium I use to try to understand.

512teymmkwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

First off, what’s up with the title? Assuming you have the exact blend of ignorance/information that I have, here’s what you know: the Argonauts, Jason, Golden Fleece, Medea…. so you’d be justified in thinking a book titled The Argonauts is a retelling of a myth, in the nature of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which tells the story of Penelope, she of the wandering husband Odysseus, complete with Greek chorus of slaughtered maidens. (Confused? Read the book. It’s excellent.)

But The Argonauts— Nelson explains the title, which is a complicated analysis of the use of language by Roland Barthes:

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo‘s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same inflections which will be forever new.”

I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.

So love is both a personal and immediate declaration, but it’s also an acknowledgement of your place in the structure of human emotions and the way we use language, and the way the word or the concept, in some way, inevitably transcends the immediate experience. But by using the word, we stitch ourselves into the narrative, so to speak.

I read this book as an extended meditation on integrity– not the moral kind, but in the more archaic sense of wholeness. What does it do to your identity– your personal coherence, shall we say– when you fall in love? (What do we mean by “fall in love?”) When you have sex? When you get married?  When you get pregnant? When you give birth? If we define the self by the borders of our body, when do we think of these borders as being permeable, and what does that do to our sense of self?

IMG_0206One of my favorite things about this book is the constant references to theorists. See those (very tiny) names in the margins? Those are the names of theorists from whose ideas she’s building on in the paragraph. On this page she references Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Mary Lambert, Susan Fraiman, and Lee Edleman; other pages cite Wittgenstein, Butler, Deleuze, Foucault… anybody you’ve ever read in an intro to theory class. I quite like this form of hat tip, but not citation– new thinking is most often built on old, either in reaction to or extension of, and this is just a very elegant way of attribution without getting bogged down. I think. Down side is that if you wanted to read more of such and such particular idea, it would take some work to locate. And random aside, which is neither a pro or a con: the further in my education I get, the more I feel like people are writing for my precise level of education. I’m guessing this is more an example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and not actually the stars acting in alignment, but I’m reserving judgment.


Heroines, Kate Zambreno

In Heroines, Kate Zambreno interprets her life through the nearly invisible lives of the modernist wives and muses. She talks about “Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Zelda Fitzgerald: writers and artists themselves who served as male writers’ muses only to end their lives silenced, erased, and institutionalized” (from the Amazon review).

“The biographies of the great men see their excesses as signs of their greatness. But Jean Rhys, in her biography, is read as borderline; Anaïs Nin is borderline; Djuna is borderline; etc. etc. Borderline personality disorder being an overwhelmingly gendered diagnosis. I write in Heroines: “The charges of borderline personality disorder are the same charges against girls writing literature, I realize—too emotional, too impulsive, no boundaries” (45).

Heroines is ostensibly about the modernist wives and mistresses, but more about how the woman’s voice is silenced, how women living outside the lines are eccentric, mad, while aberrant, even anti-social behavior is merely a part of genius in a man. But it’s a personal memoir, not a history, more of a rambling and digressive contemplation of Zambreno’s position as a woman, as a writer, as a wife, as an academic. She’s overtly working out her own role through the studies of these other women (she terms it Bovarizing–as in, interpreting your life through literature, like Madame Bovary did.)

“I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order–pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.”

And my personal engagement with the text: I underlined paragraphs, scribbled annotations in the margins, wrote essays on the end papers, wrote gobs in my journal. This joins Nancy Mairs’s Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer in the small category of books that keep me inspired, make me want to keep working, to keep writing.

And every time I try to talk about this book, I end up talking about how much I write when I’m reading it. And I’ve read it several times– I first picked it up about a year ago, and read it cover to cover then, but since then I’ve dipped in at the odd moment, reading a paragraph or a page or ten, coming away feeling less crazy, less insufficient, less wrong in my selfness. It gives another lens to interpret parts of myself that I’d otherwise read as, well, crazy and insufficient and wrong. And her narrative style gives me confidence– she skips and swoops and is occasionally less than clear, but always intelligent. It seems so personal. So idiosyncratic. It seems like her voice, not just her thoughts, polished and straightened up into acceptable narrative form, but personal. A perfect blend of thinking and feeling.

Read more about The Argonauts here.

Read more about Heroines here.

This is a continuation of my “best books of the last year” project, in which I’m writing about the (you guessed it) best books that I read during my blogging sabbatical. The first entry to this collection discussed Tannie Maria and Nelly Dean, read it here

 

 

 

Talking about Books: Arcadia, by Iain Pears

Fates of worlds, ends of stories, types of telling. Thinking about Arcadia (book and app) on the blog.

I got home late-ish on Friday night, picked up Iain Pears’ Arcadia to read a chapter or so of before turning in, and basically disappeared until late Saturday night. To be honest, I kind of knew that was coming–I’ve been excited about this book since I first heard it was coming out and I’ve read and loved all of Iain Pears’ novels, and own most. (And Arcadia! I hoped there were connections to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I love, and there are!)

First off, the plot of Arcadia is hugely complicated. If you’re familiar with Pears’ work, you won’t be surprised by this: An Instance of the Fingerpost told the same story from four perspectives; the three stories that made up Stone’s Fall were told in reverse order, The Dream of Scipio considers the same fundamental questions through several crises in history…. Lots going on, always. You don’t read Iain Pears with your brain turned off. (His art history series is less challenging but very enjoyable.

Screen shot of Iain Pears' Arcadia App, my phone. Iain Pears explicitly and consciously plays with forms of narration in his work. He talks narrative strategy in this article in the Guardian, in which he introduces the app that he designed for this book. From what I can garner (I read the old school hardback pictured above) the app is an ebook that lets you rearrange the narrative based on whose story you are interested in. There are ten narrative lines (the student’s tale, the professor’s tale) and you can follow read straight through on one narrative line, or stop to move to another. He mentions that critics of his previous novels thought they were too complicated, that readers complained because you had to remember a detail for 500 pages or so. (I’m thinking this is what note cards are made for, that’s how I made it through The Children’s Book, because, as much as I love Byatt, that book positively sprawls.) So he created the app to make things easier on the reader. I’m also wondering what this does to the function of the author– I’d need to play around in the app a bit to really have an opinion, but right now it seems to venture towards the “Choose Your Own Adventure” realm… not really there, of course, because the plot is set and I’m not sure how much the order matters. Perhaps I’ll understand this a bit more when and if I explore the app. Check out this video if you’re interested in the app.

But back to the novel. There is a lot going on at all times. Or at one time. Or however you interpret time, which is a central question of the book. That said, I only needed to flip around in the book to remind myself who someone was once or twice– in some books with multiple interweaving timelines (ahem, David Mitchell) I spend as much time analyzing and tracking as I do enjoying. Not the case in this book.

There are three worlds (for lack of a better designation) in Arcadia: Anterworld, a pastoral idyll with heaping helpings of all things Shakespearean; 1960’s Oxford, where Henry Lytton (friend of Tolkien and Lewis) writes stories about his ideal world as a respite from his war work; and Mull, a far-future totalitarian government in which Angela Meerson’s subversive discoveries about time travel threaten the prized stability. But divisions between these worlds are far from distinct: Henry Lytton has an idiosyncratic friend named Angela Meerson, the world he writes about is called Anterworld, and the rest is plot that I don’t care to spoil for you.

I highly recommend this book. I loved the characters, I loved the worlds, I loved the narration, I loved the problems that it was preoccupied with. Get it, you won’t be disappointed. And the app is free!

 

Tannie Maria and Nelly Dean: best books of the last year (1 of 4)

I’m catching up on the best books of my blogging sabbatical… come along!

I’ve read a ton since the last time I posted here. I should know– I’m packing right now, and I believe my book boxes are at least that heavy. It’s not unusual for me to rave about a book: I generally think most of the books that I read are amazing. If the ending wasn’t wretched, and the dog didn’t die… hey, I liked it enough to finish it, it’s probably still a little bit alive for me, so I’m going to have something good to say. Six months later? I’m all “I think there was a boat in that, right?” and couldn’t pick the lead character out of a lineup.

But these books. These do not present that problem. These are the books that have stuck with me, that I’ll read again. So without further ado:

1. Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery, Sally Andrew

Tannie Maria is a 50-something newspaper columnist in a small town in South Africa. (Tannie is a term of respect for a woman in Afrikaans.) Her column used to be all recipes, but the newspaper owners demanded an advice column, and so now she does both. Or rather, since she doesn’t think she has much to say about love or relationships, she gives people recipes that help with their problems. But sometimes that’s not quite enough….

From the back cover:

Recipe for Murder
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barrelled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists (prepared for The End of the World)
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 lamb
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks, chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat!”

This was one of my Christmas books, and I loved the cover so much that I read it first. And then I bought the audiobook and I’ve listened to it three or four more times since then. Maria is smart and lonely and hopeful and I just loved her and her world more than I can say. A bunch of Tannie Maria’s recipes are included in the back– they sound delicious, and once I’m settled into my new kitchen, I’ll let you know! And I highly recommend the audiobook– Sandra Prinsloo’s voice is perfect for the book. Only downside to the audiobook is that you can’t immediately look up the Africaans words in the glossary in the back, but I think the context makes it clear enough. And while the book certainly stands alone, happy days, it’s the first in a series! The second  comes out on July 7, and you can bet it’s on my calendar.


2. Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights, Alison Case

Nelly Dean has been taking care of Wuthering Heights and the Grange since she was a girl. She told Lockwood the story of Wuthering Heights when he asked, but now she’s filling out the story with all of the things she left out the last time. And she left out almost everything.

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time when I was about 12, long before I cared about or even noticed unreliable narrators, or even narration as a thing to be concerned with. It was all about the story, and who did what and who loved who. or whom. whatever. Long before I cared about that, too. It was one of a few books that basically made my teenage years: Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Phantom of the Opera… overblown romance, a little hidden passion, and I’m there. Always a bit more Marianne than Elinor. Loved that one, too, but basically because the older sister is the smartest. Obviously.

But I’ve been thinking a bit more about narration lately, (taught Nella Larson’s Passing, and so introduced my class to the wonderful cacophony of an unreliable narrator; I rewrote a paper that had been giving me fits to focus on the narrator) and when I did my annual re-read of Wuthering Heights (usually in February), I was very aware of Nelly Dean’s pauses and gaps and linguistic stumbles. And then I was given Nelly Dean for Valentine’s Day, and was completely swept away. I did some research after– apparently I’m an idiot and people have been talking about the unreliable narration of Wuthering Heights for ages… oh well.

(In a completely random full-circle moment, one of the books that I used to frame my thinking about the narration in that paper I rewrote was Alison Case’s Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the 18th and 19th-Century British Novel. And I only knew her name sounded familiar until I finished the book and was gobsmacked by how good it was and looked her up, and lo and behold, she’s in my library “borrow list.” And the worlds collide.)

Anne Perry, Grey’s Anatomy, Deborah Harkness, and freaking Heathcliff

June has been a non-stop reading month for me–I’m waiting to hear about employment in the fall, so my anxiety has had me reaching for book after book after book, just to keep away from those lovely spinning thoughts. (26 books in June. I’m winning that summer reading contest that I’ve not been enrolled in since 6th grade. And I think it’s because of those reading contests that I feel like I need a popsicle now.)  And since I’m not working, I have the time. (This sounds like, and I”m sure is, a #firstworldproblem, but I am so bored by not working that I absolutely can’t stand myself. It was unexpected, so couldn’t have been prevented, but I long to reach that sweet spot of being neither so stressed I can’t breathe nor completely unproductive. Like I said, #firstworldproblems. There’s been many a point in my life that an unexpected spot of unemployment would have been crazy tragic, financially, and I’m not in that spot right now, so I’m trying to be grateful for the time to slow down. It’s not easy.

Anyway, last books of June. I think I need to step up my game a bit–these both annoyed me to no end, yet I’m currently reading the next book in each of these series. Dunno why.

content81. Paragon Walk, Anne Perry
1980, approx 300 pgs, 65 of Reader’s Choice, reread

I’ve spoken at length about pros and cons of these books–nutshell: details are great, primary characters are good, secondary characters are forgettable and interchangable, plots get ridiculously repetitive. Of course the bad guy is the most important. Hello, we know that power corrupts. Got it, thankyouverymuch. Anyway, I’m in a Victorian headspace lately, and so am rereading a few of these just to track how she does what she does well, and to stay focused on the mid-century goodness. 

Plot: A girl is raped and murdered in the oh-so-exclusive Paragon Walk, and Thomas Pitt is called in to investigate. Shockingly, his wife Charlotte’s sister, Emily, lives in the square with her husband, Lord Ashworth so, of course, Charlotte gets all up in that business.

Problems: It’s necessary to maintain the pretense that Charlotte is a traditional Victorian wife (a role which she hasn’t really broken so far in the series), and so all of these mysteries have to affect Charlotte or her family in some way personally. When Christina Yang left Grey Memorial (yes, I’m pulling out a Grey’s Anatomy reference, #noshame) (#oklotofshame), she referenced all of the horrrrrrible things that have happened to the the group of interns that started together. Lord. The deaths (poor George), the crazies (poor Izzy), the terrorists, the bombs, the airplane crashes, the multiple storms that shut down basically everything and were tracked to some thrilling musical score, the divorces, the scandals, the holycrapofitall. I think she called it a crazy devil hospital, thought that might have been a blog post I read after, but she definitely urged Mer not to stay. And that was before the whole Der thing. God. That show is ridiculous. Anyway. Yet still I watch.

So I think that’s basically where Charlotte Pitt needs to be right now. She needs to be calling in the wise women to purge her house with sage, because she’s got some seriously bad juju going on. And yes, I’ll read the next one. But c’mmon. There needs to be a slightly more reasonable reason for Charlotte to get involved with a mystery than her brother-in-law is suspected. Again. (The next one, the one I’m currently reading, is yet another personal connection. Le sigh.)

82. A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
2011, 592 pgs, 66 of Reader’s Choice, reread

Plot: Diana and Matthew  (witch and vampire) meet in Oxford where they are both academics, get swept up huge dramatic thing about this book that apparently will tell all the creatures where they came from, and in the process fall madly and dramatically in love, which is quite against the rules.

I’ve read this a zillion times. (Ok, maybe three.) These books are ridiculously enjoyable–Harkness is an academic, and it shows in her attention to detail. And the world she’s created is fun.

But we need to talk about Matthew.

Matthew is beginning to seriously piss me off. At first, it was all so–oh, what a beautiful library! And yay! Authentic details about 16th century England! But now I’m feeling very much like that one terrible reading when I realized what an absolute and utter asshole Heathcliff was. (I’m sorry, having a broken heart does not give you the excuse to yell at the dogs. Just get over yourself.) And I had so loved Wuthering Heights before that. And that part where freaking Rochester fools Jane into thinking he’s going to marry Blanche Ingram. For absolutely no earthly purpose other than to watch Jane’s face blanch. (See what I did there? So clever.) (And Blanche Ingram would so have worn pink on Wednesdays.) I know they have their reasons, poor, pitiful, tortured, Byronic heroes that they are. And it’s all about luuurve. But still.

janssen_reading20mysteries20for20romance20lord20peter20wimseySigh. This is why Lord Peter Wimsey is the best, h/t to Dorothy L. Sayers. He has actual problems (er, shell shock?) but manages to deal with his difficulties without treating the people around him dreadfully. There are so few romantic heroes that you don’t have to make allowances for. I mean, these are guys that you’d hold an intervention for a friend if she were considering dating. These are the ones we’re supposed to swoon over. Fer crying out loud. Love is awesome, please protect those around you as much as you are able, however you identify, but the male posturing and authority taking? I’m just so over it. Matthew, please sit down and shut up, you are not actually a pack leader.

*Yes, I know that the series follows Diana gaining power and so becoming equal…. but you don’t earn equality. Equality is a given. And I know that it’s vampires and witches, and not just straight up gender stuff, but c’mmon. It’s ALL gender stuff. And I’m a little pissy right now because I’m listening to the 2nd book, Shadow of Night, and he’s much worse in the Elizabethan England than he is in modern Oxford. But still, dear Matthew Clermont whateveryournameis. Go suck an egg.

**Also, I’m perfectly aware of the inconsistencies implicit in a comparison of early 19th C heroes, with early 20th C, with early 21 C. I get that they are representations of ideals and not really supposed to be judged on quite the same scale as, say, the guy that just won’t shut up at the bar. You’re very smart, thank you for pointing that out, now go work on your thesis.

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.