My year in books: 2016

This was an interesting exercise last year, so I thought I’d do it again.  Obviously, 2016 is widely considered to have been a pretty terrible year for the world, and it was also a challenging year for me, personally, and for many people I know and love.  There will no doubt be a lot of thinkpieces in the next few weeks about what’s happened, and what we’ve all learned (or not learned), especially because some of what happened isn’t going to end in 2017, and we’ll all have to deal with the long-term consequences of things like Trump and Brexit. I look forward to anxiety-reading all about this in the next three weeks. (I enjoyed this piece from Slate, although it was published in July, back when Trump was just a nightmare and not a terrifying, Orwellian reality.)

2016 y u no end soon?

Is it over yet? Source.

All this preamble is to say that I was curious about whether my reading patterns would somehow reflect the crap year we all just lived through. I know that there was one major change, which I didn’t track through Goodreads: I read many more escapist romance novels this year than I ever have before. I don’t tend to count those toward my book total for the year because they are a) embarrassing to list in a public forum (sorry, I’m still kind of a snob), and b) I breeze through them so quickly that sometimes it’s like does this even count as reading. But in my own personal Terrible Months of July, August, September, and October, that was really all that I was reading, in between a lot of crying and anxiety-ranting at friends and family. (Anxiety-verbing is mostly what I spend my time doing, to be honest. Thanks, friends and family, for putting up with me.)

So anyway, my official number for this year as of December 8, 2016 is 80 books read, but it’s a bit higher than that, unofficially speaking. There’s more of a numbers breakdown below. Aside from reading more escapist fare this year (in addition to the uncounted romance novels, there was a lot of Georgette Heyer and YA fantasy), I don’t see very many patterns in my reading. As befits a year where a lot of things fell apart, most of the books I read seem to have been grabbed at random.

First, some superlatives (categories vary slightly from last year)…

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Best book I read: I absolutely loved The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Funny, sharp, insightful, and never dull, written with an appealing blend of anger and dry humour. The Canadian government is doing a #GiftingReconciliation book list this holiday season, and so far they’ve made some great choices, including King’s book. It should be required reading for everyone in North America. My two runners-up are The Break by Katherena Vermette (a book I’d love to see on the #GiftingReconciliation list) and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (more below).

Worst book I read: Unlike last year, I didn’t have an immediate winner here. I very much did not care for The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, but it wasn’t pretending to be anything other than what it was—a somewhat fluffy escapist read.

Most fun reading experience: This is a three-way tie between two really fun books, Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, and one pretty ridiculous book that I loved despite myself (The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, but fair warning, it is ridiculous). The Blue Castle is a true delight. Let the back-cover copy convince you:

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original-imageMost disappointing reading experience: 
I read Bill Bryson’s newest book The Road to Little Dribbling when I was on vacation in the U.K., thinking that a book in which he wanders around the U.K. would be a perfect
thematic match for my trip. I love Bill Bryson so much that I read the book he wrote about the summer of 1927 in America even though I don’t especially care about 1927, aviation, U.S. presidents, or old-timey baseball players, and I loved it—I trust him to take any boring old subject and write about it well and with great humour. So I was very disappointed when I finished The Road to Little Dribbling, which has all the heart and gentle wit of a diary kept by a cranky octogenarian muttering about “kids these days,” which is to say, hardly any.

Best endings: Unquestionably Elena Ferrante. I’ve only read two of the Neapolitan novels so far—My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—and I have to admit I got a bit bogged down during the middle of the second one, but Ferrante knows how to build up steam before plunging her reader right into a devastating, dark, and perfectly unexpected ending. Those endings are seriously just killer. They’re not really cliffhangers, but both of the ones I’ve read (no spoilers, don’t worry) bring back a character, object, and/or motif that was important earlier in the book in such a surprising and perfect way that you think, “I can’t wait to read what happens next.”

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Best new-to-me author: I read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time this year (Slaughterhouse-Five) and was appropriately blown away, but my pick in this category is his polar opposite. My friend Jill (hi, Jill!) recommended Georgette Heyer to me ages ago, and this year I finally dove in. If you like Jane Austen, Heyer is the closest you can come to recreating that magic, and unlike Austen she was very prolific, so you’ll be occupied for a while. Her plots are formulaic, not as rich or surprising as Austen’s (but whose could be), and the characters are often quite silly—let’s say “lightly drawn”—but her books are thoroughly entertaining if you like the Regency period.

Best sequel: A Court of Mist and Fury, Sarah J. Maas’s follow-up to A Court of Thorns and Roses, veered sharply away from the track she laid during the first book, to great effect. Many long YA series can be frustrating because new situations and characters are thrown in only to create obstacles between the main character and the “real” love interest or to unnecessarily prolong the series. Maas herself is guilty of this in her Throne of Glass books, but in A Court of Mist and Fury, she reworks a lot of what was presented as unquestionably good in book one, and not in a way that just feels like she’s treading water waiting to get back to the original plot or love interest.

Best title: The title of Anne Tyler’s retelling of  27070127
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is great: Vinegar Girl. The book itself, less so. I wanted Tyler to dig a lot more
meat out of Shakespeare’s story, which she places in modern-ish Baltimore and retells with a light, mostly too light, touch.

Best revisionist history: My Lady Jane, co-written by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, is an absurd but fun retelling of the story of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days between Edward VI and Mary I, aka the two weaker prequels to Elizabeth I. In this version of Tudor England, the Protestant Reformation becomes a conflict between people who can turn into animals at will (Protestants like Edward VI) and those who can’t (Catholics like Mary I). I said it was absurd!

The Thomas Hardy Award for the book that took so long to read I forgot most of the plot: Moby-Dick. Obviously. I haven’t finished it yet, so I assume this award will have the same recipient in 2017, and possibly 2018… But my coworker gave me an adorable pop-up version of the book, so if I read that, it basically counts, right?

rush-ohBook I read because it seemed enough like Moby-Dick to count as working on reading Moby-DickShirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is a charming coming-of-age story set in a small whaling town in New Zealand around the turn of the 20th century. Teenager Mary Davidson has to care for her many younger brothers and sisters while supporting her father and his whaling crew after her mother’s death. It’s a much funnier, gentler story than that summary suggests, and it reminded me very much of my beloved I Capture the Castle, which brings me to my next category…

Book I read because it seemed like a straight rip-off of I Capture the Castle and I am
here for that: 
This is a very specific-to-me category, but I’ll read any book set in a dusty old English castle that is about a girl who needs to marry rich. Thankfully for me, Patrice Kindl delivered with Keeping the Castle. It isn’t really a straight rip-off of ICtC, as it wasn’t written in the 1940s and therefore has a more tongue-in-cheek modern attitude about all the ridiculousness of decaying English aristocrats and life in a castle. It’s also set in the Regency period and its protagonist is much less dreamy and romantic than our 31122beloved Cassandra, but Keeping the Castle definitely scratches that “castle” itch. Keep the escapist castle books coming 13249217in 2017, world—we’re going to need them. Also, this seems like a good place to note that I wrote about ICtC for The Billfold this month, thus fulfilling my desire to proselytize about that novel to the world (or the portion of the world that reads The Billfold).

Best literary experience: Okay, so 2016 wasn’t all bad for me, because I took an amazing trip to the U.K. (pre-Brexit) and *drumroll* saw a BBC drama about the Brontës being filmed in their hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Which, by the way, is both the most picturesque place I think I’ve ever been and where I had the most delicious afternoon tea. I also saw the couch Emily died on and Charlotte’s appallingly tiny “mourning shoes,” which she decorated with the hair of her dead siblings. The Brontës were far more metal than you or I will ever be.

Bonnets!

Bonnets!

It was a pretty literary trip, in fact: we saw a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre; I went to the British Library not once but twice to look at two different exhibits; I also wandered through Lambeth carrying Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth with me (doing a bit of research for some freelance work, more on that in 2017); I visited the Charles Dickens Museum and was extremely excited to learn that I have the same butter churn as ol’ Chuck; then, the Brontë pilgrimage; and finally, we popped in to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh to say hi to Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robbie Burns. Definitely the highlight of the year.

I was very excited.

I was very excited. Also, The Black Bull was where Branwell went to get drunk. History! It’s everywhere, even in pubs.

And now, some numbers. In 2016, I read:

  • 80 books (as of December 8, with several more that I didn’t add to the official total—a complete list minus those extras can be found here);
  • 65 books by women and 15 books by men (crush the patriarchy etc.)*;
  • 66 novels, 11 nonfiction books, two mysteries, and one book of short stories;
  • 24 books I’d classify as young adult (though the lines between young adult, “new adult,” and regular old adult fiction are becoming ever more blurred);
  • six books inspired by Jane Austen in some way (four by Georgette Heyer, who was absolutely a Jane Austen fangirl, in addition to Dear Emma by Katie Heaney and the diary Emma Thompson kept while she was filming Sense and Sensibility);
  • five books by one author, Sarah J. Maas (the most books by any single author that I read this year);
  • four books about dating and/or being single, including Live Alone and Like It, about which I’ve gone on at length, but also All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, Labour of Love by Moira Weigel, and Date-onomics by Jon Birger;
  • two books about food in some way (Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal);
  • only one book set during WWII, Slaughterhouse-Five (this feels like it can’t possibly be right since all books eventually get back to WWII somehow…);
  • and once again, nothing by Jonathan Franzen! Good riddance, 2016!
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My cat’s favourite read this year was Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

*A note: This includes one book co-written by three women. In last year’s post I included only the author’s sex (which is just a best guess based on a quick Google search or prior knowledge; obviously we can’t always know an author’s true gender identity preference). It’s important to me to read diverse books (after this year more than ever), and I still do a pretty terrible job of it, so I need to make more of an effort. But giving a breakdown here of “white writers” vs. “writers of colour” also doesn’t feel like a great solution for a whole host of reasons—sometimes you know a writer’s background or race and sometimes you don’t, and I don’t want to assume anything about anyone or lump all writers of colour into one category. I do know that I need to get better at this, though, so I might start noting this more in 2017. 

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In which I enthusiastically recommend an advice book from the 1930s

In troubled times, sometimes the best thing you can do is open a book and pretend you live somewhere else. In these particular troubled times, I have a feeling almost anywhere else would do—even Mordor. Now feels like a really good time to climb into a long fantasy series and never climb out.

livealoneBut for my own escapist reading last weekend, I chose Marjorie Hillis’s 1936 advice book Live Alone and Like It, pitched as “the classic guide for the single woman” and complete with charming illustrations (peppered throughout this blog post). You’re probably wondering why anyone needs a guide to living alone, let alone liking it, especially if you’ve ever had roommates. It’s true that living alone is a pretty simple matter of paying rent and, you know, living there, but Hillis is here to tell you that living alone can also be a Great Adventure, or at the very least a moderately stylish and entertaining good time.

img_20161123_213941I’ve lived on my own for just over three years, and the pleasure of having everything exactly where I want it and as I like it has yet to diminish. Recently, I bought a new cover for my couch. Who did I have to fight with over the colour or convince that it was a worthwhile purchase? Absolutely no one. (Regrettably, I did have to pay for it all myself.)

Hillis is fully in favour of making one’s living-by-oneself existence as comfortable and cozy as possible. A writer for Vogue, she was naturally concerned with fashion, style, and parties, but she also, smartly, realized that as more and more women were moving into cities to take jobs and delaying marriage to work and date first, some of them might end up living on their own, and those women would also want to be fashionable, stylish, and throw parties. Live Alone and Like It is aimed at women who hope to eventually not live alone—e.g., women who hope to marry. It was such a bestseller that women who lived alone briefly became known as “liver-alones,” and Hillis went on to write another advice book, Orchids on Your Budget.

img_20161123_230559But even if one is just waiting to get married, says Hillis (remember, in this book it’s 1936), living alone doesn’t have to be a sad routine of eating sardines from the tin or wearing shabby housecoats. Absolutely not! In Hillis’s world, living alone is a glorious affair featuring lively cocktail parties, well-ordered weekends of reading, dinner dates, and breakfasts in bed, and quilted bed-jackets to wear when entertaining from one’s bed. (There’s a whole chapter devoted to beds called “The Pleasures of a Single Bed.”)

img_20161123_214018Written in crisp, wry, matter-of-fact prose, Live Alone and Like It offers practical advice about how to manage meals for one, entertain in a small space, keep oneself stylish on a budget, and find an appropriate hobby. For example, did you know that all you need to have people over for cocktails is seven bottles? (Sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, bitters.)

Hillis also ends each chapter with adorable, possibly completely fictional “case studies”
about real women who do or do not follow her advice. Consider “Miss N., a pink and plump lady” who scares off men because she has “the gleam of the huntress” in her eyes, versus Mrs. de W, a widow who learns that breakfast in bed is the cure after a lifetime of working hard. Let’s all put on our favourite bed-jackets, let in some morning sun, and eat some toast in bed while we read a novel.

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This book is really quite delightful, and it doesn’t even feel that dated. There is an arch comment about Calvin Coolidge, which isn’t exactly topical, but it’s a sick burn, so that’s a wash. In the past few years, there have been a whole host of books about women living alone and spinsterhood and people delaying marriage (I’ve even written about some of them), and Live Alone and Like It fits right in, especially with its focus on what to buy to achieve the perfect single life. Consumerism and spinsterhood seem to go hand in hand, but that’s an essay for another blog post.

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Allow me to quote from the book now to convince you that it’s a singularly pleasurable reading experience. And with chapter titles like “Solitary Refinement” and “A Lady and Her Liquor,” how could it not be?

On the reasons why people find themselves living alone: “… the chances are that some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.”

On a proper bedroom wardrobe: “This is no place to be grim and practical. […] don’t think that four bed-jackets are too many.”

On breakfast in bed (her favourite topic): “Of course, the civilized place for any woman to have breakfast is in bed.”

On having a second savings account, separate from your emergency fund: “It may seem superfluous to you, occasionally it may even be superfluous, but, in that case, you can always blow it in on an evening coat or a trip to Bermuda.”

On hobbies: “The hobbies your friends will appreciate most are astrology, numerology, palmistry, reading hand-writing, and fortune telling by cards (or anything else).” It’s the parenthetical “anything else” that I love there. Even fortune telling by reading animal entrails?!img_20161123_214045

I’ve been thinking a lot about the why of living alone lately. My landlords sold the house I live in, and for a while I thought I should move out and find roommates so I could pay less rent. But I keep coming back to the same thought, that living alone is truly worth it. There’s a special kind of magic in being able to sit on my (newly covered!)* couch on a Saturday morning, reading or waiting for banana bread to bake or checking the morning headlines, and looking up to see my card catalogue and my old butter churn and all my art and books and unnecessary throw blankets, and knowing that absolutely no one is going to bother me or tell me I have too many blankets, because I live alone and like it. As Hillis writes, “The trick is to arrange your life so that you really do like it.” Helpful advice for all of us, liver-alone or not.

* this is a lie because I haven’t actually put on the new cover yet

Books, lately: 2016 so far

At the beginning of every new year, I think about what I want to read in the next twelve months. I usually decide that I want to read “better” books. (Yes, I set reading goals, I’m a dork.) And then I spend weeks devouring some YA fantasy series. This year is no different so far! I’ve read only one thing from my list but lots of random stuff.

I got this edition because I thought Penguin would have the best explanatory notes. Then I discovered that they aren't marked in the text, so I am constantly flipping to the notes to see what is explained for the page I'm on. IT IS MADDENING. Editors, please don't do this.

I thought Penguin would have the best explanatory notes. Then I discovered that they aren’t marked in the text, so I’m constantly flipping to the notes to see what is explained for the page I’m on. IT IS MADDENING. Editors, please don’t do this.

I’ve actually started Moby-Dick, which I said I was going to read this year.  It’s hilarious! I’m not kidding! How come no one ever talks about how funny this book is? I honestly thought I was in for months of reading turgid prose about a man who thinly disguises his overcompensation as an obsession with a whale. Nope! (You may be wondering why I wanted to read it in that case. I have no good answer.)  Ishmael is a gloriously snarky narrator, and so far I’m loving Melville’s random digressions full of arcane knowledge. I hope some of it comes in handy at trivia night. I escaped reading this in high school/university/grad school, and I think it would be a much better sell to the poor students who aren’t so lucky if they knew that Ishmael is a total gossip.  Much like Jude the Obscure, this is the book that I’ll be picking up and putting down for, oh, probably the rest of the year/my life.

The YA fantasy series with which I’m obsessed this year is Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series. Book one is about an assassin, released from a mine where she was sentenced to hard labour, who must face a competition to become the King’s Champion to win her freedom. Oh, and there are elves and witches and magic spells and stuff. Between the charming crown prince and the gruff captain of the guard, and other love interests who pop up in later books, this series certainly fulfills the apparently mandatory “love triangle” component of current YA lit. It’s kind of silly and not very well-written, though Maas’s other book, A Court of Thorns and Roses, wasn’t bad, but I. am. obsessed. Each book is so long, and yet I’ve devoured them in an embarrassingly short time. So, if you’re into silly teen fantasy-lite, check them out.

Eagerly waiting for book 4 in this series to arrive at my library.

Eagerly waiting for book 4 in this series to arrive at my library.

I’ve read three other fluffy-ish books this year: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, which I hated so I won’t talk about it; Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, for my YA book club; and Vintage by Susan Gloss, which I liked a lot! “Books set in vintage dress shops” is a small genre, and due to my love of dresses I’m always happy to find another book to add to the list. Vintage was sweet and tackled some unexpectedly heavy topics (domestic abuse, motherhood, mental illness, teen pregnancy) in a way that didn’t feel awkward or preachy like it normally does in these kinds of books. An enjoyable read if not a super serious literary one.

And speaking of super serious literary reads, I read Laurfatesandfuriesen Groff’s Fates and Furies, a book that everyone was praising to the skies in 2015. I have mixed thoughts. I absolutely loved the structure of the book and thought it was brilliant. The novel is about a young couple, Otto and Mathilde, and their relationship unfolds over about 20 years. The first half is told only from Otto’s perspective (Fates) and the second half only from Mathilde’s (Furies). The differences in their accounts of the same 20 years are shocking and unexpectedly dark, especially Mathilde’s violent backstory. It almost feels like two different books, which somehow works. I think this was what Gillian Flynn was aiming for in Gone Girl, only here the vastly different perspectives of husband and wife are truly surprising and not telegraphed from a mile away. Throughout the first half, I found myself growing increasingly skeptical at Otto’s depiction of Mathilde as the fierce, organized, endlessly caring and stable and nurturing wife, and that was all completely turned on its head in the section from her perspective. Loved it.

Structure aside, though, this book was waaaaaay too long. I often find myself making these complaints about contemporary fiction, but there is absolutely no need for a novel like this to be 400 pages. Otto’s section grew so tedious—there was so much manpain about his family and his career as a playwright—and even Mathilde’s section could have been trimmed considerably. If the book were a bit crisper, with a few sections cut and some internal monologue vastly reduced, it would have a tighter, thriller-esque quality that I think could work very well (much like Gone Girl but smarter and, impossibly, even darker). Maybe it’s me and reading 400 pages about a long-term marriage is not my jam, but how much whining and secret plotting and not having a normal discussion about anything do we need to read about to get the point.

I’ve read three other books this year, all of which I plan to write about later. One I borrowed from a friend and kept for over two years. Now it’s back in her possession. There’s one reading goal for 2016 knocked off the list!

My other vague reading plans for this year are: to finish Moby-Dick, of course; to read all of the random books I have about Jane Austen and/or inspired by her and/or starring her as a vampire so I can write a post about her; to read all of my Judy Bolton books so I can write something about teen sleuth fiction and Margaret Sutton’s subtle genre subversion; and to read no more novels about knitting. And if I finish Moby-Dick, maybe I’ll start War and Peace? Ahahaha.

My year in books

Here are some random thoughts about a few things I read this year.

acresBest book I read: I’m going to give this one to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, which is a modern(ish) retelling of King Lear set on a farm in Iowa. It works way better than that sentence suggests. Smiley masterfully creates layer upon layer of small tragedies, giving the novel a truly Shakespearean sense of inevitability and fatalism. And hey, it won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1992.

Worst book I read: Hands down, this dishonour belongs to You Disappear by Christian Jungersen. At book club, I read aloud a list of things I hated about it. How much jam can one Danish family eat?!

montmarayMost fun reading experience: I loved reading Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals books, a young adult series that begins in the 1930s and is set on a fictional island kingdom off the coast of Spain. The books follow the ragtag group of teenagers who live alone on the island, having inherited the kingdom from their various dead parents. When World War II breaks out, their lives change forever. The later books in the series go surprisingly dark and feature a fairly chilling portrayal of life in London during the war. For people looking to fill the I Capture the Castle void.

SITTENFELD_Eligible[3]Most disappointing reading experience: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, book 4 in The Austen Project, a series of modern-day retellings of Jane Austen novels by different authors. Sittenfeld is an excellent writer, Pride and Prejudice is a great book, but Eligible fails to take off. It doesn’t come out until April 2016, so you have some time to gird your loins. All of the books in this series so far have been very disappointing. No one is taking any risks with the plots or characters so it is, literally, like reading watered-down Jane Austen, with iPhones and university degrees and much less sly, sparkling wit.

Book that still comes up in conversation: The Circle by Dave Eggers. It’s scarily relevant to These Modern Times. (Also my pick for worst sex scenes.)

Books from my list that I read but am not going to blog aboutAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (really liked this one; will be seeking out her other books); Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (see below); The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (the narration in this is as brilliant as everyone says); Philomena by Martin Sixsmith (boring; the movie was better).

judeobscureBook that took me the longest to read: Thomas Hardy’s 800-something-page ode to the tragedy of what happens when two fools can’t make up their minds to get married, Jude the Obscure. I began this in Cuba in March, took it to a Lake Huron beach in August, and was still reading it in November during my commute to work. I’m done now, but sometimes I feel like I’m still reading it. It’s really a book only fans of Thomas Hardy could love. And even then…

Book that reminded me strongly of a superior book I read a few years ago: Peter Nichols’s The Rocks has a cover so similar to the wonderful Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter that I can only salute the marketing and art departments who came up with it, because that cover is why I read this book. Beautiful Ruins was a critically acclaimed bestseller and The Rocks was clearly designed to fill the niche of “book set in the Mediterranean featuring doomed romances and secrets that are gradually revealed.” Beautiful Ruins is great; The Rocks is not as great, although the way the plot unfolded in reverse worked well.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

Book that was clearly designed to appeal directly to me: First and Then by Emma Mills was marketed as Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights. Shut up and take my money.

Most random book I read this year: I found a copy of Jane Heller’s Name Dropping at my grandparents’ house (I was probably trying to avoid Jude the Obscure) and read it in a few hours. Not the kind of thing I’d normally pick up, but it was pretty entertaining!

Book I put on hold at the library early in 2015 that I am STILL waiting for as of December: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better by Monica Heisey. It’s finally on its way to me…

Best movie based on a book: Far From the Madding Crowd, based on the book of the same name by that old joker Thomas Hardy. Runner-up: Room, which was extremely faithful to Emma Donoghue’s novel and just as devastating.

Movie based on a book that has kicked off a new reading obsession: I saw In the Heart of the Sea, which was mediocre at best but is based on an by-all-accounts excellent non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick. I am now obsessed with 19th-century whaling. I’m planning to read Moby Dick in 2016 and have also bookmarked some other books on the topic. I wonder if Moby Dick will take less time than Jude the Obscure.

hemsworth

Chris Hemsworth looks like this in In the Heart of the Sea so maybe it’s still worth seeing? Image source.

You can see a complete list of what I read in 2015 on Goodreads.  And now, some numbers. In 2015, I read:

  • 77 books in total (as I write this mid-December, I’m hoping to squeeze in a few more before 2016);
  • 64 books by women, 12 books by men, and 1 book by multiple authors both male and female;
  • 52 novels, 18 non-fiction books of various genres, 5 mysteries, and 2 books of short stories;
  • 20 books that I classify as “young adult”;
  • 8 books primarily about diseases, medicine, and/or health, including a book about vaccines and immunity and one about cholera, a novel about a man with a traumatic brain injury (You Disappear by Christian Jungersen, do not read it), 2 young adult novels about tuberculosis (Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks and Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider), and 2 books in which a mysterious illness breaks out at an all-girls’ school (Conversion by Katherine Howe and The Fever by Megan Abbott);
  • 5 books set at least partially during WWII;
  • 5 books by Agatha Christie;
  • 4 young adult novels about impoverished families who live in crumbling castles (3 of these were in the same series and 1 was a re-read);
  • 2 trilogies (Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years and Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals);
  • 2 novels inspired by Jane Austen (Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld and Austenland by Shannon Hale);
  • 2 books about royal weddings (The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan and Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot);
  • 1 Victorian novel, Jude the Obscure;
  • … and, to the tune of “and a partridge in a pear tree,” nothing by Jonathan Franzen!

Happy New Year!

Two books about diseases and public health

I’ve mentioned a few times that my research focus during my MA was disease (specifically rabies) and the Victorian novel. I’m still very interested in diseases in general, especially how we construct narratives of disease and how these narratives—often deeply ingrained—influence our ideas about public health. Old (research) habits die hard: whenever I see a new cultural history of disease come out, I buy it. And that’s how I came to have Eula Biss’s On Immunity and Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map sitting unread on my shelf. I packed both for a vacation last month. I know, I am great at picking beach reads.

onimmunityAs its title suggests, On Immunity is an examination of the idea of immunity. Biss was inspired to write the book after she had a baby and faced the question of whether or not to vaccinate him. Biss did vaccinate her son, as she had always thought she would, but she was surprised by the amount of fear she felt herself, and encountered in others, when she talked to other mothers about this choice. She started thinking about vaccination, and the idea of immunity, and how vaccines developed in the first place, and this strange cultural moment we live in where people are opting out of vaccines that have saved literally millions of lives in the past hundred years. (I’m wildly pro-vaccine, in case that wasn’t clear before.)

In On Immunity, Biss interrogates the metaphors and myths we use to describe immunity. Vaccination is an expression of fear, whether it is fear of something concrete and relatively preventable such as death by measles, or something far more intangible, such as the fear of death itself. But the anti-vaccination movement is also based on fear: fear of the government, fear of Big Pharma, fear of injecting the unknown into your body. If skin is a barrier between our bodies (our selves?) and the outside world, then vaccination penetrates that barrier—all in the name of granting you immunity.  It does seem contradictory, doesn’t it? After all, vaccines contain the very viruses they are supposed to be protecting us from. The earliest form of inoculation against smallpox involved rubbing scabs or fluid from a smallpox patient into one’s own skin.

Biss understands this fear of vaccines on an individual level, but she also points out that in the case of infectious disease, our bodies may not be solely our own. Herd immunity, which means the general immunity to a particular disease in a population of people, depends upon people getting vaccinated. As the recent resurgence of diseases like measles shows, it only takes a few nutty people to threaten herd immunity for everyone. And there are people who can’t be vaccinated for health reasons (ex. allergies) or who have compromised immune systems (ex. cancer patients). What is our responsibility to public health? Are we required to be vaccinated so that others won’t get sick? Health is assessed on an individual level at our yearly physicals, but our own physical health depends in many ways upon the health of our community, especially when it comes to infectious diseases.

Victorian London learned this the hard way during the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. Cholera was the scourge of the 19th century, popping up every so often and routinely killing thousands of people per outbreak. (Cholera is still a problem today.) No one knew how it was spread until the Broad Street outbreak, but there were plenty of theories, chief among them the miasma theory. Simply put, back then, London stank. Lots of people crammed into tiny dwellings leads to lots of waste, and Victorian Londoners weren’t so great at managing their sewer system (or, um, having one). The air in London smelled pretty bad. Many respected officials and doctors believed that diseases, including cholera, were spread by this “bad air,” aka the miasma theory.

A cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.

An 1858 cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.

Along came John Snow, a doctor who was already notorious for pioneering the use of anaesthesia. When an outbreak of cholera occurred in his neighbourhood in Soho, he mapped the instances of disease and traced them all back to one water pump, where he found that the water supply had been contaminated by one household suffering from cholera. Feces from that household made its way into the water supply, and the disease spread through the water supply into the surrounding houses with devastating effects. Snow was one of the first epidemiologists, although he never got the credit he deserved and died without having his theory accepted by the medical establishment of the day.

ghostmapThe Ghost Map tells the story of this outbreak and Snow’s investigations. It is well-researched and fascinating, like a thriller where the villain is invisible and also causes a lot of diarrhea and suffering. I wish, though, that Johnson had spent more time investigating the cultural context of cholera and how Victorians thought about disease. The idea of the social body is an important one to add to this discussion, especially because it still has relevance today (see Biss’s questions about whether we owe it to our neighbours to get vaccinated). And how did Victorians approach infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever?  How did they write about disease in their newspapers, depict it in cartoons, confront it in their fiction? They had limited medical knowledge of pathogens and germs, but they were beginning to break through in other important areas (microscopes, the idea of inoculation). It seems to me that this conflict gave rise to many inaccurate but interesting depictions of diseases that suggest a society obsessed with health, illness, and infection. The Ghost Map could have benefited from some discussion of these questions.

In some ways, we’re still Victorians. Just like them, we’re obsessed with health. Also like them, and other humans throughout history, we still infuse our disease-related language with metaphor. As Biss points out, the way we talk about many diseases is steeped in the language of battle: so-and-so “lost her battle with cancer,” white blood cells are “armies” that keep our bodies safe from infection. In our struggle to understand our bodies, we rely on metaphor to give shape to our invisible inner workings. As Susan Sontag argues in Illness as Metaphor (a must-read for anyone interested in these issues), our dependence on metaphor leads to moral judgments about certain diseases. Sontag looks at consumption (tuberculosis) in the 19th century and cancer in the 20th and concludes that our disease metaphors lead to a kind of blame the victim mentality. For the Victorians, all kinds of diseases could blamed on emotional repression or moral failings. Countless novels feature women who are forced to bury their feelings and are soon wasting away from some nameless ailment. Men in the same novels who are “weak” and prone to drink inevitably end up dying of their own unnamed illness. And not a lot has changed in how we talk about illness. In 1978, when Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, one alternative cancer treatment involved psychotherapy to help find out what part of your personality brought cancer upon you.

Likewise, our current obsession with trends like “clean eating” often leads us to assume that people who don’t eat chickens that were raised to believe in themselves and organic blueberries watered with angel tears are doomed. There is, of course, a lot of privilege involved in these assumptions we make about health and wellness. The point is, a disease is never just a disease.  It’s a battle we must fight. It’s a statement about our incomes, the food we eat, the amount of exercise we get, the kind of sex we have or the number of partners, the amount of alcohol we drink. It’s a sign of our most private defects, writ upon our bodies for the whole world to see.

And why do we think about disease this way? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because we have a hard time accepting that our bodies are, ultimately, out of our control. We can eat all the happy chicken we want and avoid pesticides and wear a mask on the subway, but we’ll still get sick, especially if we live in large urban centres (and increasingly, many of us do). There are precious few things we can control about our bodies. All the more reason to get vaccinated.

A Whole Shelf of Dating Books, or the Beginning of My Charlotte Lucas Year

I turned twenty-seven last week. I’m also single. Fans of Jane Austen will know that this puts me firmly in Charlotte Lucas territory. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is the best friend of Elizabeth Bennet, our protagonist. Charlotte is described as around twenty-seven, plain, but sensible and practical. Charlotte is really more notable for what she isn’t; as Joshua Rothman writes, she’s not young, not pretty, and not rich. Not married. And at the age of twenty-seven, she’s a spinster.

The cover of Bolick's Spinster is a masterpiece of modern marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.

The cover of Bolick’s Spinster is a masterpiece of marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.

P&P was published in 1813,  but people are still interested in that word, it seems. Many women are “reclaiming” it, turning it from something derisive into something else, but we’re not sure what, exactly, that something else is. In Spinster, published earlier this year, Kate Bolick wrote about her desire to build a life on her own terms, taking inspiration from five female American writers who had complicated relationships with men and marriage. Spinster is a thought-provoking, though frustratingly self-absorbed, look at the choice to remain single. Bolick’s conclusion seems to be that any woman can be a spinster if she decides to spend time thinking carefully about what she wants from her life, if she tries to find a way to build that life by following a less traditional path, if she simply decides that she’d rather not get married. And instead of being an object of scorn, Bolick’s spinster is admirable, even aspirational, in her radical desire to make choices that are unencumbered by men.*

(* A few notes here: Spinster discusses heterosexual relationships, mainly, from what I can remember. Naturally, same-sex relationships complicate the issue. And the idea that anyone makes choices in a vacuum, uninfluenced by past boyfriends or fathers or even just male friends, is definitely suspect. But this is how Bolick characterizes her spinsters.)

Edwin Long's The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.

Edwin Long’s The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.

Spinsters are pretty in right now. Lots of women (and men, too) are posting images of themselves with their cats to Instagram and silly Tweets about nightgowns and eating chocolate in bed (just a few examples from my own life…), using hashtags like #spinsterlife. The Toast, probably the Internet’s most popular blog for spinsters (which I say with admiration), has done a number of hilarious pieces about modern spinsters. Has spinsterhood become some kind of hipster lifestyle movement? Is it now about having cats and enjoying knitting and going on vacation alone? If so, I’m on board. We don’t need “spinster” as a legal categorization anymore (“single” or “unmarried” will do just fine, thanks), so let’s make it into a different thing, a fun, tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. Let’s all solve a murder and then go out for gin-based cocktails and head back to our perfectly decorated apartments-for-one like real badass spinsters.

In real life (and some fiction), spinsters were objects of derision or pity. They began as independent women who spun fabric. And then, probably because unmarried women are threatening to a society that depends upon heterosexual marriage for reproduction, something changed and they became lonely figures. They weren’t cool aspirational figures who could do whatever they wanted; they were often women without family or money who couldn’t work because Sexism and so had to make ends meet with limited resources. As Briallen Hopper points out, for a book called Spinster, Bolick’s memoir/cultural history doesn’t have much to say about those kinds of spinsters. (In fact, it’s really not much of a cultural history at all, preoccupied as it is with white, relatively privileged New York writers. I’d love to read a book about the evolving figure of the spinster, from spinning fabric to today, if there are any out there.) Most of the five women Bolick profiles were married at least once. Bolick writes about the relationships she herself had in between bouts of living alone, travelling, and prioritizing her work. Bolick isn’t living a life apart from men; she’s constructing her life and fitting men in here and there when she wants to.

An 1881 cartoon from the British humour mag Punch. Source.

The “real” spinster is missing, or at least the spinster as we’re most familiar with her: the dour maiden aunt or neighbour with her pursed lips and reduced circumstances, hiding a secret life behind closed doors, the object of many speculations about why she never married—the Emily Dickinsons and Emily Griersons of this world (is Emily a spinster name or what?), the Miss Havishams, the Miss Bateses, all of the many unmarried women in Henry James and Edith Wharton and Charlotte Bronte, even Miss Marple. Austen herself, and most of the Brontes, and lots of other female writers. These are women who are uninteresting to men for reasons of looks, money, or personality (too outspoken, too awkward, not agreeable enough) or threatening to men because of their intelligence and desire for something other than marriage in a time when marriage was the only acceptable end to their stories. The Charlotte Lucases of fiction.

Charlotte, of course, becomes not-a-spinster pretty quickly; she marries Elizabeth’s cousin Mr. Collins, who had previously proposed to Elizabeth and been rejected. Mr. Collins is odious—all you need to do is search for images of “Mr. Collins Pride and Prejudice BBC” and you’ll see exactly why Elizabeth, or anyone, would have refused him. He’s a pompous, self-important social climber. He simpers in front of his social superiors and self-righteously informs his cousins of what books they should be reading. He’s horrible. So why does Charlotte marry him? Because he has a wealthy patron and a good income and he’s going to inherit the Bennet house some day. Charlotte’s twenty-seven and this might be the first and last marriage proposal she receives. As Mrs. Collins, she’ll have a house of her own, probably children, and security for the rest of her life. As Miss Lucas, unmarried eldest daughter of a small-town knight, she’ll be a burden to her parents.

Mr. Collins is stomach-turning. Source.

Mr. Collins isn’t exactly tall, dark, and handsome. Source.

Rothman argues that we should try harder to understand Charlotte’s choice to marry Mr. Collins, a choice that is generally read as depressing or sad, even in the context of Charlotte’s world, Regency-era England. Especially as modern readers, we’re sad that Charlotte feels that her only option in life is to marry a man she doesn’t love. She’s the 1813 version of that Princeton mom. As Rothman points out, though, this is a choice that Charlotte makes herself, in a world that tries its hardest to deny her a choice at every turn. She’s fully aware of Mr. Collins’s defects, and her own. She isn’t pretty enough or rich enough to attract a different kind of husband, and that’s her reality. So she makes the choice to marry him, to be a wife and not a spinster, to create a life of her own (she rearranges the rooms in his house to her liking and encourages him to spend his time in the garden). Not the kind of life that Bolick decides to create, but a life that she can live with nonetheless.

I started with Spinster, but I’ve found myself reading a lot of books about these topics: dating and relationships, being single, modern love. Maybe that’s the cultural moment we’re in now. People are delaying marriage, and online dating is taking off, so people are writing about these things. There’s Spinster and a number of smart reaction pieces to it. Aziz Ansari’s book on the sociology of modern dating, Modern Romance, came out this year, following a 2014 book called It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel (there’s that number again). All of these articles and books have made me think a little harder about how we date, and why.

modern romanceAnsari writes well about the problem of dating in the modern age. Modern Romance is immensely entertaining, and reassuring, too, if you’ve ever tried online dating and thought, “Well, this is terrible.” You’re not alone, because Ansari has tried it, too, and he has a lot of funny anecdotes to share. He retells dating horror stories people told him in focus groups. He visits retirement homes to figure out how people met fifty years ago. He travels to Tokyo and Buenos Aires to see how people date in other countries. Unlike Bolick, who writes to defend the spinster life, Ansari assumes that if you’re reading his book, you’re interested in dating and settling into a serious relationship (and Modern Romance is about men and women). So he has a few practical tips about giving it more than one date, and actually meeting up in person instead of living through your screens, and so on. But he also makes a number of accurate observations about the state of modern romance. Dating is hard. We’re all on our phones all the time, and another potential date is just a swipe away. We can’t focus on the person sitting across the table from us.

9780399162879_p0_v2_s260x420-thumb-350x477-122899Eckel, too, writes about how hard dating can be. In her late thirties, Eckel was single, not by choice, and found herself frustrated by all of the well-meaning advice she received from friends. So she wrote an essay and then a book to explain why it was all wrong. You’re too picky, you’re too confident: it may be well-meaning, but it’s all contradictory. It isn’t “too picky” to reject people who want different things than you do, it’s smart. How can being “too confident” scare suitors away when people are also telling singles they should be more confident to attract others? Eckel’s argument is that most single people (those who don’t want to be single) simply haven’t met the right person yet. It’s Not You is about how it’s fine to want to be in a relationship, and Spinster is all about how it’s fine to not be in one, but they have much in common. You have to create your own life, whether you’re in a relationship or not. And you should think about the choices you make: the bad relationships you leave; the people you choose not to date or the ones you waste time with, knowing that you don’t even like them; the marriage proposal you may have turned down; the person who treated you badly and you couldn’t see it. Why did you make those choices, and what do they say about what you really want?

I’ve been jokingly referring to this as my Charlotte Lucas Year. Celebrating my birthday with a friend, I drank a cocktail called an Old Maid, a delicious sort of alcoholic lemonade, and I thought about all the things I have at twenty-seven that many spinsters before me could not. It’s 2015, and so I can date whomever I choose. More importantly, I have a job that I find fulfilling and a small amount of disposable income to spend on spinster-y things like my cat and adult colouring books and a library card catalogue. And then, I can post photos of all of those things to Instagram with a sarcastic hashtag. In my own way, I’m participating in the spinster reclaiming, celebrating elements of “spinster culture” and self-deprecatingly talking about being an old maid at twenty-seven, knowing full well that I’m not. I don’t know what Charlotte Lucas Year actually means just yet—maybe it’s just funny, or maybe it means I’m going to spend this year trying to figure out my life and what I want from it (spoiler alert: not to marry Mr. Collins). I think, though, that single or coupled, as we get older, all of us are setting off into uncharted territory. Our lives don’t look much like the lives of our parents; we’re delaying marriage and babies, not buying houses, driving Zipcars and taking transit and living in cities instead of moving to suburbs. Like Charlotte, we all have to figure out what choice is right for us, regardless of what judgmental readers have to say about it 200 years later.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When I first heard that HarperCollins was releasing what people were calling a “sequel” of sorts to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical. Who wasn’t? On the one hand you have a reclusive, aging author who has avoided the public eye her entire life and doesn’t seem interested in publishing anything else. On the other hand, there’s a big publishing company with this unedited draft someone happened to find in the vault. Okay, sure. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most major publishing event of this century so far. This book is going to make HarperCollins a ton of money, which they know. It all sounded like a “quirky” Jason Reitman movie waiting to happen.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_Watchman But clearly, as someone who works in publishing, is interested in writing, and likes TKaM, I was going to have to read Go Set a Watchman. I put it off. I read all the reviews claiming that it destroys the legacy (we’ll get to this in a minute) of TKaM and portrays Beloved Father Figure Atticus Finch ™ as a racist. I read the advance first chapter, published online by various media outlets, and felt my heart sink when I found out that Scout’s brother Jem, so prominent in TKaM, was dead in this version of the story.

Then, I read the whole thing myself. Reader, I finished it in an afternoon. There are plenty of problems with Go Set a Watchman, even setting aside the questionable choice to publish it at all (which you can read about in more detail here). But I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, much more than I had expected.

Here’s the thing: Go Set a Watchman isn’t a standalone novel. It’s a first draft of TKaM, and that’s the only reason why it’s such an interesting read. If I were evaluating this novel on its own, I would say that the dialogue is frankly terrible (all speeches, no real conversations), the plot, such as it is, is poorly paced, and the climax doesn’t work. It is very, very clear that this particular draft was never edited and was instead reworked. A short flashback scene was expanded into what would become TKaM. I don’t think that Watchman needed to be published to such fanfare or marketed as a “sequel” or “continuation” to TKaM, because I feel that is quite misleading, but it’s fascinating to read. In Watchman, readers can trace exactly what editing is and what it does.

How does editing change a book? The point is that the average reader will never know. Editing is supposed to be a behind-the-scenes, invisible hand kind of activity. And yet here we are with a record of how one of the twentieth century’s most famous books became itself. Even non-publishing-nerds can agree that that’s kind of cool. You can see traces of TKaM in Watchman, of course. Even in her late twenties, Scout (now mainly referred to as Jean Louise) is all sharp edges and angles. When she visits Maycomb as an adult, she doesn’t fit in any more than she fit in when she was a child who refused to wear dresses. And the flashback scenes where Jean Louise reflects on her childhood adventures with Jem and Dill are the best parts of Watchman—funny, so realistically childlike, and poignant, especially because Jem is dead in this version of the story.

The New York Times has more information on Harper Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff. You can see how she would read this draft and see that it would work better as a novel told from a child’s point of view. When it became TKaM, the book got tighter and less preachy. The dialogue became real dialogue instead of two characters performing soliloquies at each other. As a historical document, Watchman is interesting reading. As a novel, well, it needs some work (which is just what it got). But there are flashes of Lee’s brilliance throughout, especially in her use of details (clothing, quirks) to establish character, and her ability to evoke mood and atmosphere in few words.

So is Atticus Finch racist? Not more racist, and certainly a lot less, than any other average seventysomething white man living in rural Alabama in the 1950s. Watchman‘s portrayal of Atticus can only be surprising to you if you a) never got past the stage of childhood where you idolize your parents, or some other parental figure, or b) know nothing about the civil rights movement and what American society was like in the 1950s. Newsflash: all white people are at least a little bit racist, even today.

Jean Louise finds out that Atticus was once a member of the KKK (only to keep an eye on their activities, someone claims) and that he’s now joined a sort of concerned citizens’ group that wants to preserve segregation and keep Black citizens of Maycomb “in their place.” This is a fairly realistic portrayal of the insidiousness of racism. Even someone like Atticus, a lawyer who appears to believe strictly in the law and justice above all else, is blind to the way his cultural upbringing has shaped his beliefs. Prejudice creeps in. Jean Louise, who has escaped to the marginally more enlightened New York City, is horrified to learn all this about her father, a man she idolized. They have a cringe-worthy confrontation that feels a little bit like a scene in a drama major’s thesis project. Jean Louise accuses her father of being racist and inconsistent. He accepts her insults because he knows she has to strangle her idealized version of him in order to finally grow up. There’s something interesting there, but it’s all a little undercooked.

Even so, Jean Louise’s realization that her father is just a man is moving, and his characterization as a lawyer who still thinks that Black people are “in their infancy” as a people is cringe-worthy, but not inaccurate to the period in which the novel was written. As a novel about race (certainly the last thing I am qualified to opine about, but here we go), where Watchman really fails is in its refusal to allow Black characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. TKaM got away with this, at least in part, because it’s told from a white child’s point of view. Scout is necessarily blind to the deeper forces at work in Maycomb. In fact, that’s the point of TKaM—she learns about the evils of racism through the trial of Tom Robinson.

But as Lawrence Hill points out, except for Calpurnia (who has a very small role in Watchman), there are no “three-dimensional, fully rendered black character[s] in either book.” The brouhaha over whether or not Atticus is racist obscures the larger point: that we’re still idealizing a white saviour from a novel published in 1960. TKaM is a snapshot of race relations at a particular time in American history. It’s written from a white perspective. It’s not a guidebook. If its subject matter, about Black men being falsely accused of crimes and white society turning a blind eye, is still relevant today, that’s a sad commentary on our failure to change, not a sign of the book’s timelessness.

And Atticus isn’t a god. Whose fault is it that Atticus turned out to be a mere mortal? Not his, and certainly not Harper Lee’s.