What are you reading? (Monday 25/52)

Monday.readingThe last week or so has been unexpectedly stressful, as a housemate has decided to try to get me evicted me in favor of some of her friends who are moving to town. Lovely.

Being a bit of a nester, even in rented spaces, the prospect is more than slightly daunting. And so. While I battle on the home front, I’ve been indulging in some lighter literary fare.

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

  • The P. G. Wodehouse Collection 

Wodehouse cures what ails ya. This collection contains Right Ho, Jeeves, a full-length novel about the mad love of Gussie Fink-Nottle (who studies newts) for Madeline Bassett (who unashamedly proposes that the stars are God’s daisy chain), Aunt Dahlia (who may have gotten into a bit of trouble betting in Cannes), Antoino (who is more than a little touchy about his cooking), Bertie (of course), and, ever and always, Jeeves.

In an attempt to raise poor Gussie’s courage (literally: he’s a teetotaler, and no man, according to Bertie, ever screwed his spirits to the sticking point without a liberal application of spirits) enough to propose to the drippy Angela, Bertie proceeds to get Gussie very, very drunk. Unfortunately, Gussie also has to present the prizes at the Market Snodsbury grammar school later that day. Stephen Fry, in the article “What ho! My hero, PG Wodehouse” talks about this scene, which is considered the highlight of the novel:

The masterly episode where Gussie Fink-Nottle -presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school is frequently included in collections of great comic literature and has often been described as the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language. I would urge you, however, to head straight for a library or bookshop and get hold of the complete novel Right Ho, Jeeves, where you will encounter it fully in context and find that it leaps even more magnificently to life.

This collection also includes a bunch of short stories– “Deep Waters” and “Extricating Young Gussie” (rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay!)

  • That Part Was True, Deboray McKinlay

I read this in one long, lovely gulp lying on a quilt on my roof on a sunny and windy Saturday morning. Quite delightful. Here’s what The New York Times had to say about it:

How rewarding to perch on the shoulder of a character Barbara Pym might have conjured — a late bloomer who possesses “brickish stoicism” and brews tea on an Aga. So when the British author Deborah McKinlay takes us to “the depths of the English countryside, in a house that was an advertisement for the English countryside,” we recognize that a Lively voice — à la Penelope, that is — will be reporting with wry detachment and affection.

“That Part Was True” is part epistolary, beginning with a fan letter sent by Eve Petworth to Jackson Cooper, a ­Robert-Parkeresque, best-selling American novelist. (His recurring protagonist is “a dry-witted sleuth with gourmet tastes and a talent for observation.”) Cooking earns a starring role in their correspondence; as it continues, he begins to think of her as “his food friend,” enjoying on paper “a chaste, if warm, thing based on a mutual interest.”

Poor Eve, a divorced romantic pessimist, suffers anxiety attacks, brought on by almost anything outside her four walls. Her daughter, Izzy, and Eve herself consider Eve to have been very bad at mothering. And now Izzy’s coming wedding introduces additional angst in the form of Simon, the long-estranged ex-husband and thrice-married father, who is making up for lost time and absent scruples.

Equal space is devoted to Jack, twice-divorced, sort of enjoying bachelorhood in the Hamptons. “For the past 15 years, women had been trying to please him. Not many had managed it.” Several now seem “gluey.” Especially skillfully rendered is his affair with a diffident New Yorker, Adrienne, a dispenser of unwanted editorial advice. Worse — she’s a vegetarian who hardly eats! Mineral water and a salad don’t keep good company with omnivore, gourmand Jack. Far-off Eve, on the other hand, is a safe, quixotic object of affection and a source of recipes.

McKinlay can dip into preciousness (“He detected on her ivory-headed notepaper the fine, fresh scent of herbs”). Yet almost every page offers delicious, offbeat descriptions. Izzy’s fiancé is “all dangly charm and winsome scruffiness.” His co-workers are “tidily polite.” A waiter describes offerings “with religious gravity.”

Will a culinary correspondence (“Mutton is good with plums”) be enough to fan a flame? I worried that invitations to rendezvous in Paris were premature and unearned or, as Eve’s housekeeper warns, “dodgy.” But mercifully, Jack and Eve think so too. Jack wishes “he hadn’t said that stuff to Eve; it sounded pretentious in the daylight.”

Whereas some weak-kneed (literally: her anxiety attacks result in dead faints) characters might test our patience, we’re always on Eve’s side. She’s self-aware, her own best critic, in search of coping mechanisms and peace.

Will these pen pals actually meet in a cafe on the Left Bank? McKinlay teases us, allowing them to correspond with a bit more ardor than their nonacquaintance warrants. If we occasionally wince at Jack baring his soul, going poetic, and with Eve responding in kind (“When it had all gone — my buoyant roundness and openness to joy — when it had been stripped away, I tried to forget everything”), we understand that distance and semi-anonymity are making them brave.

I won’t say where their missives lead, but I will applaud the sensible outcome. This is England, after all, and we trust that Mrs. Petworth won’t do anything rash.

And that’s me. Anything great you’ve been reading? Please share!

 

a thousand delicate joys

Walking is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go to a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside. ― Elizabeth von ArnimThe Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

Took a walk with Ginger–every time, I see such beautiful things.

The bookstores of New York

The New Yorker commissioned cartoonist Bob Eckstein to draw his favorite bookstores. Love these.

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Read the article here.

And I love this quote:

“For the last several days I’ve had the sudden and general urge to buy a new book. I’ve stopped off at a few bookstores around the city, and while I’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of books in that time, I have not found the one book that will satisfy my urge. It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read; there’s a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I’ve been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that’s afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the course of the disease to know I’ll discover something soon.”
― Lewis BuzbeeThe Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History

Flower Fashions: Studio Saint-Ex and Grace Ciao

Last week, I reread Ania Szado’s Studio Saint-Ex, the plot of which centers around the launch of a fashion label in war-time New York. Mignonne Lachapelle collaborates with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wife to create a line based on The Little Prince. The central piece of the line is a dress based on the prince’s rose:

But what lifted the dress beyond stunning, making it unforgettable, was the shimmering red rose that dominated its front.

Consuelo walked the length of the parlor, back and forth.With each step, the rose moved as though bending to the wind or arching to hear a loved one’s voice. She swiveled her hips and the rose sashayed with her. She was the rose, through and through, bright and shiny-eyed, glowing with beauty and pride.

But even had I not just finished this book, I would have found these amazing.

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Grace Ciao’s illustrations are created entirely from flower petals. She says she was inspired to begin this project when she noticed that a rose that had been given to her was fading–she wanted to find a way to preserve the fading beauty.

See more on her blog or Instagram account.

What are you reading? (Monday 24/52)

Monday.readingFinished:

I’ve been reading about New York lately: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, now The Golem and the Jinni, and Studio Saint-Ex. 

  • The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker

An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, The Golem and the Jinni tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. One is a golem, created out of clay to be her master’s wife—but he dies at sea, leaving her disoriented and overwhelmed as their ship arrives in New York Harbor. The other is a jinni, a being of fire, trapped for a thousand years in a copper flask before a tinsmith in Manhattan’s Little Syria releases him.

Each unknown to the other, the Golem and the Jinni explore the strange and altogether human city. Chava, as a kind old rabbi names her, is beset by the desires and wishes of others, which she can feel tugging at her. Ahmad, christened by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. Both must work to create places for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people who surround them.

And then, one cold and windy night, their paths happen to meet. From the author’s website, here.

I love the intertwining settings and mythologies of the alternating stories. The New York immigrant communities are fascinating, full of rituals and relationships. The Jinni’s memories paint an arid and beautiful desert, intricate and devastating. And perhaps most interesting, to me, at least:  the golem is created, and so she constantly puzzles over the nature of humanity. Should the other be judged by thoughts or actions? To whom do we owe responsibility? At what point does what one’s nature requires infringe on another’s rights?

  •  Studio Saint-Ex, Ania Szado

Against the backdrop of WWII Manhattan’s glittering French expat community and emerging fashion scene, STUDIO SAINT-EX sets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—and his work-in-progress, THE LITTLE PRINCE—within a tempestuous triangle that pits the love and ambition of 22-year-old designer Mig Lachapelle against the passions and seductions of Saint-Ex’s fiery estranged wife. From the author’s website, here.

I don’t particularly care for that review, here are a few better:

Studio Saint-Ex is like an ocean undertow: I fell in and could not get out except by gorging on the story as it pulled me toward the final sentence. -Lawrence Hill

Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado is an elegantly alluring and poignant love story. Nuanced, written with intimacy and immediacy, it’s a fascinating account of the evolution of the classic children’s novel The Little Prince framed by the complex relationships of the French writer/war hero Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, his formidably manipulative and fiercely sensual Latin wife, and the young, talented Canadian fashion designer who captivates them both. Spare and beautifully-crafted, the novel vividly evokes the world of fashion design and the French ex-pat community in New York during WWII. In a word: magnifique!–Sandra Gulland

The perspectives in this novel are fascinating. The story is told in retrospect as Mignonne and Consuelo are both trying to get to Expo 67 in Montreal. As they sit in their respective airports, anticipating their first meeting in decades, they each recall the tumultuous year when Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was stranded in New York, unable to get clearance to return to an occupied France.

In 1942, Mignonne is struggling to launch a design career in an industry crippled by war-time restrictions on fabric and accessories and a world reeling from the horrors of war. Consuelo, Antoine’s frequently estranged wife, descends on New York to rekindle their tempestuous relationship and take her place at the side of the fêted Saint-Ex.

Currently Reading: 

I’m currently in the midst of a West Wing/ knitting marathon, so I haven’t yet started another book. And I’m not quite sure which way I’m hopping yet–I’m considering a reread of Glen Duncan’s Werewolf books. There’s a connection to be made between the golem’s outsider perspective on humanity and Jake Marlowe’s observations: both are concerned what it means to have a nature at odds with personal and accepted moralities and, more fundamentally, with what it means to be human.

If not that, then perhaps Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I’ve been fascinated by her since reading the truly excellent Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford (her biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay–Savage Beauty–is also excellent.) I don’t know if it’s the train-wreck quality of the dramatics of the Fitzgerald relationship, or the way she seems to embody so clearly a  stereotype (the muse of the great man, the aspiring artist, the mad woman [or the accusation of such], or what… but looking forward to this. Maybe this week, maybe not.

Then again, I’ve been considering a reread of Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler books, a really excellent series of novels that center on the heroine of the Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. In the fashion of Holmes and Watson, Adler, and her companion Penelope, investigate and have adventures in late 19th century London and Europe.

Such good choices on the horizon.

And that’s me–what have you been reading lately?

Weird & Wonderful: links I love this week

This week I did much more internet skimming than actual reading (and more marathoning of Mad Men than either of those)–here are a few of the things that caught my eye.

  • Lifehacker gave tips on how to break procrastination habits–hint: it just takes 5 minutes!
  • I’m still mulling over these thoughts on happiness: “the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness. It’s a really odd thing that we’re now seeing people saying “write down three things that made you happy today before you go to sleep” and “cheer up” and “happiness is our birthright” and so on. We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position. It’s rubbish. ” qtd from The Good Life on A Cup of Jo
  • This Atlantic article on “The Power in ‘Choosing to Be Gay‘ ” is fascinating, articulately invoking the difficult position of “choice” in the face of biological determinism.
  • Someone recreated the most iconic of Banksy’s street pieces in LEGOs. Awesome.
  • Don’t miss “Monstrous Feminine“, a photo series that portrays the grotesque side of beauty rituals. Cringe-inducing and absolutely amazing.
  • And for a moment of cute/awesome: this article talks about the zookeepers responsible for China’s panda population. (They have to wear panda costumes!)

 

 

A book-drunken life: Susan Sontag on Writing

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

Read the rest here.

I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Yup, that’s me! 

And here are a few suggestions for reading in pockets, via PolicyMic –start with the Atwood, because wow.

What are you reading? (Monday 23/52)

Monday.reading

Finished: 

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
  • Longbourn, Jo Baker
  • The Prestige, Christopher Priest

I’ve been loving my recent book choices. Kavalier and Clay was excellent, even though I’m not so much on the comic books, it was so well-grounded in the social context that I (even I!) was interested. And that suggests that it is just about comic books which–on one level, it certainly is, but on another it’s about so much more–about the work of creating home. Longbourn tells the downstairs story of Pride and Prejudice. I’ll admit to never having read another of the Austen spin-offs (perhaps a bit of a snob in this area); Longbourn, however, was well worth the time. Much more Wide Sargasso Sea than Austenland. I may perhaps have a bit more to say about this in the future. And The Prestige was really very solid. It probably would have been shockingly good, had I not already known the big plot twist from the movie, but there are enough twists that, even though I was familiar with the broad strokes of the plot, there were still surprises. Strong, but not perfect.

Currently Reading: 

  • The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
  • The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Audible)
  • Queer Phenomenoloy: Orientations, Objects, Others, Sara Ahmed

Anyway, so that’s what I’ve been reading. How bout you?

This week: Maya Angelou and #YesAllWomen

In between the things I juggle, two things crossed my radar this week. Maya Angelou died on Wednesday. And #YesAllWomen, a Twitter outpouring of support and grief and shared stories after the Santa Barbara shootings, passed a million tweets and is still going strong.

My introduction to Maya Angelou was in a women’s literature course –one of the basic ones, women’s voices through time or something– at a satellite campus of University of South Carolina. And it was excellent. We read Margaret Cavendish and Lauren Berlant and Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley. We talked about what it means to write. What it means to have to prove you even have the authority to write. What it means to be an author and not a muse. What it means to define yourself by how you are viewed. We talked about the invisible power structures in language, about old boy’s clubs and old wives’ tales and how knowledge is credited and discredited. We talked about identifying our privilege and overcoming disadvantage. It was a great class.

And we read Maya Angelou.

“Still I Rise” is one of my favorites of hers. I love the acknowledgement of–then resistance to–the framework in which she is supposed to fit.

I love that laugh as she is talking about her sassiness.

It reminds me of Hélène Cixous’s writing about the laugh of the medusa. “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) is Cixous’s most influential article–in it, she identifies the misogyny inherent in language and proposes resistance to that misogyny through a focus on the body as a way for women to write themselves true, instead of being written as the monstrous other. The laugh of the medusa is an embodied resistance, it is that which can overcome, subvert, mock oppression. It is a “call to arms urging women to reclaim their bodies and, by extension, their desires and identities through writing.” It is Maya Angelou cackling at your presumption that she is going to droop her shoulders and submit to your classification. The laugh.

But, while the laugh is a vital means of personal resistance, it is not everything. It doesn’t make the world safer.

I’ve been following along, with horror, all of the news that has been coming out about the Santa Barbara shootings. Read about Elliot Roger’s misogyny here. And the misogyny that drove the shootings, while a drastically more tragic incident than what many women face, has inspired a huge out-pouring of personal experiences of sexism under the hashtag #YesAllWomen.

https://twitter.com/ZAmmi/statuses/470871360307486720

https://twitter.com/wheresaddie/statuses/470985776105549824

https://twitter.com/AdelaideKane/statuses/471101252332699648

And there are, literally, thousands more. Read more tweets here, read more about the #YesAllWomen movement here.

Madeline Davis wrote an article about it on Jezebel: “I am not an angry feminist. I’m a furious one.”

Her final lines are what got me. She says

And I’m still angry, still furious. I’m furious that growing up, I wasn’t allowed to do the same things that my brother did because it wasn’t safe for me. I’m furious that my parents ingrained in me from a very young age that I should never wear heels because I should always be ready to run at a moment’s notice. I’m furious that walking alone at night feels more like an act of rebellion than a simple act of transit. I’m furious at myself for worrying that participating in #YesAllWomen would lose me Twitter followers or turn off the boy I’m trying to impress. I’m furious for the women who are afraid to tell a dude at a bar to “fuck off” because they might getbottled in the face. I’m furious at the men who entered this comment thread to complain about how no one wants to fuck them even though they’re nice. I am furious at the commenter who read an article about a girl getting murdered by a fellow student after she declined an invitation to prom and then wrote 18 paragraphs on how he doesn’t believe in rape culture because he’s never seen it. I’m furious that girls get shot in the head or kidnapped for simply daring to go to school. I am furious at my own embarrassing and idiotic impulse to say #NotAllWhiteFeminists when women of color discuss their mistreatment and dismissal by the white feminist community. I am furious about the number of tips we receive daily about the mishandling of sexual assault investigations. I am furious about sexual assault. I am furious at the people who will inevitably tell me to calm down after reading this.

And mostly I’m furious that I’ll eventually shrug all of this off, too, because laughing about it is easier than changing it. I’m furious because I don’t know what else to do.

So. I don’t know. Laughing is easier, but laughing is ultimately a gesture of futility. Today, this week, it feels a bit futile.

Plot Junkie: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (Part 2, A Couple of Boy Geniuses)

Book 1 of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay told us who Josef Kavalier and Sam Klayman/Clay were, Book 2 tells us what they want to do.

The morning after Josef arrives in his life, Sam wakes up to find his cousin filling in spaces of his own cherished comic book sketches. His artistic ambition is hampered by a rather less than deft drawing style. Josef, on the other hand, is adept and, as it is revealed, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. (This is just a quibble, but I don’t believe his drawing ability was alluded to at all in the first book. His younger brother could draw, but he was more involved with learning methods of escape. Josef seems to have been imbued with a lot of various talents.) Anyway. Josef is very artistic, it turns out that Sam is a whiz at plot construction. After successfully pitching the idea of a comic (in the style of the newly-popular Superman comics) to Sam’s boss, their character “The Escapist” is born.

I’d never really considered the social context of the comic book genre. I’ve been troubled by the messianic qualities of the superhero genre (people don’t save themselves, they wait for an otherworldly someone to combat the baddies, which is great if that otherworldly being comes, but could tend to make the population somewhat passive in their wait for rescue.) The Amazing Adventures contextualizes that reliance on the otherworldly superhero by placing it against the seemingly insurmountable adversaries of the era: the financial woes and the European turmoil of the 1930’s.

I think I love most how Chabon talks about the centrality of language to reality:

Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina’s delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Lowe ben Bezalei, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and kabbalistic chitchat–was, literally, talked into life.