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.

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

Summer Magic: Iain Pears' Arcadia and a glass of wine.

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’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. 

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.

the uncanny stranger on display

This morning I’m thinking about the character of Harper Pitt in Angels in America. I’m trying to locate an opinion about a marginalized group in a play about marginalized groups. Is Kushner re-enforcing the trope of the silenced woman, who exists as a prop for male sexuality, or revealing it? Investigating or relying on the preconception of the female as mad? In this post-everything age of gender politics, is focusing specifically on the female role in a play about AIDS and gay identity somehow repressive or restrictive? Am I missing the point? Or does this play just rewrite a binary of male subjectivity and female secondary positions in a more fabulous key? 

“By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display–the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” 

–Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa