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

Plot Junkie: Glances at Missed Books (Part 1)

In looking over the list of the books I’ve completed this year, I realize I kind of stopped reviewing them somewhere in mid-June. I began again in August, but in the mean time, I didn’t talk about some really fantastic books. To rectify this shocking oversight, I’m condensing my usual ridiculously wordy critiques a bit, to, well, speed the plow. These all deserve extensive discussion, but alas, it is not to be.

And here, comprising the first installation of this catch-up project, for your illumination and elucidation…

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
 The Paris Wife is a fictional account of the life of Hadley Richardson, more commonly known as Mrs. Hemingway the first. (She was followed by a Mrs. H 2, 3 and 4.) They were married from 1921 to 1926, and spent most of that time living in Paris. Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1925: The Paris Wife primarily tells of the time before his fame and the assurance of his greatness.

Hemingway’s increasing emotional unavailability to his first wife, who appears rather naïve and provincial surrounded by Parisian artistic community, makes her seem incredibly insecure. The portrayal of the expat community in Paris and Pamplona was fascinating, but it was all seen with longing from the outside, from the eyes of the girl who didn’t quite make it into the party. It seemed to me like McLain’s Hadley just wasn’t as witty or brilliant; she just didn’t though it was her story, it seemed more the story of her interaction with the “important” people–those who did great work and talked about great things–while the little women talked in the corner. Hadley articulates this, saying she and Alice Toklas were relegated to the “wife” role, while Ernest and Gertrude seemed to operate on a different plane. McLain doesn’t really present any renegotiation of the situation, instead she just presents it. And Hadley seemed so drab and insecure, by the end I was ready to have an affair to get rid of her, too. I don’t think that was precisely the author’s intention, but it was all rather excruciating. I really just wanted her to leave the sorry bastard, to strike out on her own and have a fabulous life. 

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder is a “fingersmith,” a thief in mid-nineteenth century London. She is contracted by Gentleman, a crook aiming to marry a fortune, to take a post as a lady’s maid and to forward his courtship of her soon-to-be mistress whenever possible. Once the lady is won and wealth achieved, the lady is to be deposited in the nearest madhouse, and Sue will be given all of her gowns and jewels, as well as three thousand pounds. The lady is Maud, she works as her uncle’s secretary in a remote country estate, and she seems strangely ambivalent regarding the attentions of Gentleman. As Maud and Sue become closer, and the date for the implementation of Gentleman’s plan begins looming, Sue begins to wonder if she’s capable of the grand betrayal that is required of her. Betrayals ensue, but not quite the ones foreseen.  

Mother-of-god this was a good book. One of the best I’ve read in ages. It’s divided into sections (Book 1, Book 2, etc.), I was reading at midnight and bound and determined to make it to the end of the first section before I put the book down like a good college student and get some sleep. Ahem. Didn’t happen. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, so I’m going to stop babbling. Instead, I’ll just restate the previous: You have to read this book. So so freaking well done. It’s kind of an homage to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (which if you haven’t read yet, you’re in for quite at treat when you finally do), and several of the Victorian Gothic elements of that novel show up here: two women in a lonely house, a young art teacher, falsely aristocratic husband merely after the young wife’s money, the asylum as a repository for unwanted women, actual madness, decidedly odd caretakers and less than truthful mothers. But Sarah Waters does something with the story that Collins never did—Collins’ heroines fade away into a conventional and strained domesticity, both apparently content to serve the honorable hero, one as friend and confident and the other as love. Fingersmith’s heroines aren’t quite as ready to embrace conventional domesticity. (Can I say I loved this book one more time? Yep, it’s my blog. I loved this book.) 

The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister
I enjoyed this book, but objectively I can see that it wasn’t really all that great. Honestly, it was one of those semi-forgettable collections of vignettes about a group of random people connected by one random thing, and then by the end we find out that we’re all just human underneath, even the ones that look like they’ve got it all together. Sigh. I’ve read that book. Several times. Think The Jane Austen Book Club, but with olive oil. 

That said, there was a short story about an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s that was extremely well done. Her memories are trickling away, but different smells and textures in the kitchen bring back flashes of the past. I thought Bauermeister did a great job of both showing an all-too-understandable terror of rootlessness and framing her character just in those little glimpses of memory.

See Jane’s View: Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper

Today I’m returning to Cornwall, but with Susan Cooper instead of Daphne du Maurier. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is one of my favorites: it has kept its place on my bookshelves through multiple library purges and I reread it frequently. I’ve recently been skimming through Greenwitch, the third novel in the series.

Greenwitch brings together the characters from the first novel, Over Sea, Under Stone, (Paul, Simon and Jane Drew) and the second, The Dark is Rising, (Will Stanton) in order to… well, you know, defeat Evil and stuff. (Evil with a capital “E”, of course.) Throughout the entire series Evil and Good collide in a series of escalating conflicts… lots of showdowns, lots of crises, Merlin shows up, it’s all quite enjoyable.

My favorite in the series is the second: The Dark is Rising. Will Stanton turns eleven on a snow-muffled day in late November, and learns his responsibilities as the seventh son of a seventh son. Cooper does such a wonderful job of describing the deep and awe-inspiring silence of a heavy snowfall and linking that silence to a sense of the immense age of the English countryside. A perfect November read, and one I return to on a near-annual basis.

Anyway, the third novel in the series, Greenwitch is the only which features a female protagonist. By virtue of her gender, Jane Drew is allowed to attend the strictly female ritual of the making of the Greenwitch. The Greenwitch is a straw figure that is built and imbued with a sort of Cornish cultural magic during a ceremony, then thrown into the sea as an offering. Jane later dreams of a conscious Greenwitch, mournful in the face of the inexorable pull of the sea as the structure is drawn out into the deeps.

Of course, Jane saves the day by performing to gender type: she empathetically just “knows” the emotions of the Greenwitch, she becomes the caretaker and takes responsibility for those emotions… but even though she is acting through those stereotypical tropes, she still is allowed to be an actor in the drama rather than an adoring onlooker.

That dream is the pivotal point in the book: the primary action occurs while Jane is asleep, safely ensconced in her bedroom.

At the beginning of the book, Jane’s uncle takes her to the bedroom that she is to occupy while they’re in Cornwall, saying that the room is “very small, but the view’s good.”

“Oh!” said Jane in delight. The room was painted white, with gay yellow curtains, and a yellow quilt on the bed. The ceiling sloped down so that the wall on one side was only half the height of the wall on the other, and there was a space only for a bed, a dressing-table and a chair. But the little room seemed full of sunshine, even though the sky outside the curtains was grey. Jane stood looking out, while her great uncle went on to show the boys their room, and she thought that the picture she could see from the window was the best thing of all.

She was high up on the side of the harbour, overlooking the boats and jetties, the wharf piled with boxes and lobster-pots, and the little canning factory. All the life of the busy harbour was thrumming there below her, and out to the left, beyond the harbour wall and the dark arm of land called Kemare Head, lay the sea It was a grey sea now, speckled with white. Jane’s gaze moved in again from the flat ocean horizon, and she looked straight across to the sloping road on the opposite side of the harbour, and saw the tall narrow house in which they had stayed the summer before. The Grey House. Everything had begun there.

Simon tapped on the door and put his head round. “Hey, that’s a super view you’ve got. Ours hasn’t any, but it’s a nice room…

Greenwitch is a “girl’s book”, just as The Dark is Rising is a “boy’s book.” (Please note the campy quotes. I’m not painting the world blue and pink here, I’m reporting the colors.) The Dark is Rising goes into beautiful and exquisite detail to describe the old roads and the forest–all of the out-of-doors adventures that Will gets into while his family is sleeping that enchanted, deep sleep. Greenwitch does the same… for the bedroom. And the view, oddly enough. When Jane is actually outside in that beautiful scenery, it isn’t as gorgeous. The rocks are menacing, the cliffs too steep… but from within her bedroom, looking out onto the scenery, safely sequestered, all is lovely.

It isn’t just Susan Cooper who is at fault here–I love her books and I’m not really aiming at her. Re-read Nancy Drew, or Francis Hodges Burnett, any L. M. Montgomery’s novels, or even (gasp) Louisa May Alcott. The amount of meticulous and loving detail that goes into describing the bedrooms–and that which can be seen from the bedroom–is truly astounding.


(The above pictures are from a special exhibit at the Met that is running through July 4 entitled Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.)

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience…

Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book. –Anonymous

Why do we read? To become someone else. Mint Vinetu, a Lithuanian bookshop, invokes this idea of identity escape in a series of ads.

A good book should leave you slightly exhausted at the end.  You live several lives while reading it.  ~William Styron

Lord! when you sell a man a book you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.  ~Christopher Morley

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations – such is a pleasure beyond compare.  ~Kenko Yoshida

Photos from Mint Vinetu.

And some other book stuff that I love:

I’ve been lusting over these gorgeous editions of classics from Penguin for more than a year. I want them all. It doesn’t matter that I already have copies of nearly all of these, multiples in some case.

I think Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is my favorite–the dodo birds make me smile.

These pictures from PosterText create an illustration from various novels using the text and white space. Love ’em. So clever.

Pride and Prejudice, using the first 35 chapters of the novel

And a few beautiful things from Etsy to conclude (click to see the listing):

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train. –Oscar Wilde 

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else. –Gloria Steinem

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience:  this is the ideal life.  ~Mark Twain

Babbling about books: March

At the end of last month I decided to integrate my reading catalog from LibraryThing here. I’m slightly ashamed about the amount of reading I completed–I’ve been stressing like crazy about how much I have to do, but apparently I’ve still been reading quite a bit. And so, without further ado…

March 2011
25. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
26. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
27. Beauty, Robin McKinley
28. The African Queen, C. S. Forester
29. Old Lady Mary, Margaret Oliphant
30. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
31. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke
32. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewyck
33. March, Geraldine Brooks
34. The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber
35. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
36. Henry VI (2), William Shakespeare

Favorite books of the month: This is difficult- I enjoyed most of what I read this month.

  • March, by Geraldine Brooks was great, I’ve already babbled about that;
  • The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber was enormously long (944 pgs) and kept me totally entranced for the two days or so that I lived in it. It tells the story of a Victorian-era prostitute who ascends the ranks of society–and about the various characters in that society. The ‘mad wife’ with the undiagnosed tumor (which will always remain undiagnosed, as the nameless postmodern narrator tells us) was possibly my favorite character; the way the household works around her ‘quirks’ was meticulously detailed and fascinating.
  • Best first line: “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade…” from A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

I loved nearly all of these, and on a different day I certainly would have chosen different favorites (Rebecca!) (and Old Lady Mary!) (and even, problematic elements aside, Beauty!) – check out my opinions on the rest, if you’re interested, here.