Monday, October 31, 2016

October 2016 Reading Wrapup

October was quite a productive month of reading indeed.  I read in a variety of formats and genres, large and small books, most written by women, LGBTQIA individuals, and people of color. The Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon took place this month, so I devoured a few great books during that time.  I'll give you a rundown of some general thoughts on each of the 11 books that I completed in October.

The books I read were:
  •  Why God Is a Woman by Nin Andrews
  • The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  • My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg 
  • March: Book 1 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
  • March: Book 2 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
  • March: Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
  • No Surrender by Constance Maud
  • The Anatomy of Inequality by Per Molander 
  • The Woman's Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

On the island called Island, men are treated as sex objects and often confined to housekeeping and child-rearing.  They are expected to adhere to rigid ideals of grooming, body type, and fashion.  Those men who do work are constantly hounded by women about when they're planning to get married and start a family.  In Why God Is a Woman, Nin Andrews takes traditional, patriarchal, gender roles and completely inverts them.  Through this satirical exploration, the author mines her alterna-reality so that the source of the satire can be more clearly seen as the bizarre concept that it is.  I really enjoyed how the prose poetry played with gender stereotypes, but I found the satire of those stereotypes to be done too obviously and heavy-handedly.  It read as though the author had a checklist of topics she wanted to cover in each poem.  I wished there was more nuance to the poetry, especially in the important messages that the poet was trying to make.

Alison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Out For" is a syndicated comic strip that has been running for decades, covering friendships, pop culture, queer theory, romantic relationships, parenthood, and much more.  The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is a bind-up of those comics, showing the progression of ideas, styles, and other components of society over time.  It's at times hilarious and heartbreaking, and so true to life, no matter your orientation.

The other Alison Bechdel work I read this month was actually a re-read.  I first read Fun Home in 2015 and was blown away by the humanity and empathy that the author put into this graphic memoir.  The author does an incredible job of conveying her grown into adulthood, set against the backdrop of her rather nontraditional family.  As she learns more about herself, She also learns more about what makes her family unusual.  It is a touching and enlightening illustration of society, family, and self.

My Own Words is a collection of legal opinions, speeches, a libretto for a proposed Justice Ginsburg/Justice Scalia opera, dissents, and many other documents.  This book gives the reader a personal glimpse into the life of a person who is not only a brilliant legal mind, but also an engaging speaker and educator, a lover of the arts, and defender of those who have not always had the ability to stand on their own.  She is truly a remarkable human, and we are so lucky to have her as an American Supreme Court Justice. 

March is a three-part graphic memoir of US Congressman John Lewis and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movements in the American South.  Set against the backdrop of the swearing-in of President Elect Barack Obama, John Lewis reminisces about how far society has come from the days of segregation until the modern era when the country could elect a black President.  He grew up as the son of sharecroppers in Alabama, but it was his involvement in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville that stirred his life-long involvement in non-violent protests.  He is repeatedly jailed and suffers incredible violence at the hands of police, politicians, and everyday people.  His moral fortitude and dedication to the cause of equality is truly inspiring. 

First published in 1911, at the height of the Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain, No Surrender masterfully straddles the line between journalism and historical fiction.  There are factually accurate and stirring portrayals of suffragette protests and incidents, as well as their arguments in favor of giving women the vote.  Read my full review here.

 The Anatomy of Inequality is a terrible tease.  It leads readers toward a fascinating, in-depth analysis and discussion of human inequality.  However, upon arriving at the entrance to the aforementioned in-depth adventure, the reader is instead whisked onto the "It's a Small World" ride and whisked through a short (32-pages short) tour of inequality throughout human history.  The rest of the work gives a surface-level investigation into different economic/social/political factors and religious/secular justifications for or against (in)justice in modern times.

The Woman's Bible, published in the late nineteenth century, is an unbelievably progressive book for its time, and is still progressive for modern times.  In this work, American feminist and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton presents a critical, radical feminist, thorough critique of the books of the Christian Bible.  She was knowledgeable in history and the Greek language, and was able to offer viewpoints and rationale for a less patriarchal interpretation of the religious text.

Jesmyn Ward's memoir Men We Reaped tells two related stories.  The first, her upbringing and family life in the American South, is told in chronological chapters.  Alternating between those chapters are memoir/biographical sketches of five men, related to or friends of the author, whose lives were taken far too soon.  Each of these chapters is dedicated to one of the five men, and is told reverse-chronologically, ending with her brother's death.  Through these interwoven narratives, the reader not only gets to know the author and her community of friends and family, but also how the systematic racism and poverty played a tragic role in shaping all of their lives. 

Librorum annis

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Autumn Reading Tag

Autumn is most definitely my favorite season...cooler temperatures, a crispness in the air, cosy clothing, and a general slowing down.  Because of my autumn adoration, I thought it timely to take on the Autumn Reading Tag.  The tag was created by YouTuber Amy Jane Smith, and you can watch the original tag here.  I wasn't tagged by anyone, but I've enjoyed reading other blogger/vlogger responses to the questions so I decided to explore them myself!

Question 1: Are there any books that you're planning to read in the autumn season?

Actually, there are many!  I've borrowed copies of The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood from my local library, and am looking forward to reading them soon.  Of books I own, I'm really excited to start Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, and The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens.

Question 2: September brings back-to-school memories.  What book did you enjoy reading in school, and what were you most and least-favorite subjects of study?

There isn't a particular book that evokes memories from schooltime, but I did enjoy a lot of classics of the Western Cannon - Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  My favorite subjects were English Literature and Psychology, and my least favorite subject was Geometry.

Question 3: October means Halloween.  Do you enjoy scary books and/or movies, and what are some of your favorites?

I tend to really enjoy dark, suspenseful books more so than gruesome or gory ones...Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes and Good as Gone by Amy Gentry come to mind.  I'm not much of a film watcher, and I especially don't enjoy horror movies.

Question 4: With November comes Bonfire Night and fireworks displays.  What is the most exciting book you've read that kept you gripped?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was tragic and gripping and exciting all at once!

Question 5: What book is your favorite cosy-comfort read?

When I'm in need of a book that works like a snuggly blanket on a cold day, I turn to something light and fun, like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Question 6: Curled up with a good book, what's your hot drink of choice?

Tea!  There's a small tea shop near my workplace where I buy a loose-leaf cream earl grey that is unbelievably delicious with just a splash of milk.  If it's something herbal that I'm craving, I adore Tea Pigs Peppermint Licorice tea, or a loose-leaf organic chamomile with a squeeze of honey.

Question 7: Are there any plans you're looking forward to over the autumn season?

Apple-picking at the local orchard is a yearly tradition, from which I make a few apple pies and some pints of apple butter.  I keep some apple butter for my own enjoyment, and gift the rest to friends and family at holiday time.  It tastes heavenly when spread on fresh-baked bread!

If you are interested in considering your autumnal reading through these questions, consider yourself tagged!

Librorum annis

Monday, October 24, 2016

On TBR, Rereading, and a (Hypothetical) Challenge - Part 2

In my last post, I started to discuss a reading challenge - only rereading the same books for the rest of time.  The originator of this idea, a booktuber named Paige, limited her list of books to 30.  I tend to read quickly, and therefore I've decided to increase my list to 50 books.  Because this is such a diversion from my normal reading pattern, which includes very little rereading, I'm treating this as a hypothetical challenge.  Below are my self-imposed conditions for this challenge, and the 50 books that would make the (initial) cut.

Terms & Conditions

  • The term "book" shall refer to either an individual tome, or a series of related tomes from the same author.  A "book" may also be a collection of an author's work, published in a single volume.
  • The initial reading list shall consist of 50 books, regardless of genre or type.
  • Rereading shall take place for a period of no less than three consecutive years.  After that period has passed, the reader will be able to reevaluate the list and make changes as necessary.

The Books (in no particular order)
  1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  2. Gilead/Home/Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  3. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  4. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  6. Sula by Toni Morrison
  7. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Greenberg
  8. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  9. My Brilliant Friend/The Story of a New Name/Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay/The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
  10. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  11. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
  12. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  13. Billy Budd by Herman Melville
  14. Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
  15. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  16. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
  17. Voyage of the Sable Venus: And Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis
  18. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  19. A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
  20. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  21. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  22. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  23. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare
  24. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  25. Human Acts by Han Kang
  26. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  27. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  28. Middlemarch by George Elliot
  29. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  30. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
  31. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  32. The "Harry Potter" Septology by J.K. Rowling
  33. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  34.  Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  35. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
  36. The Persephone Book of Short Stories by Persephone Books
  37. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
  38. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
  39. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes
  40. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  41. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  42. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  43. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  44. The Healing/Corregidora/Eva's Man by Gayl Jones
  45. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  46. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  47. Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  48. How to Be Both by Ali Smith
  49. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  50. 1984 by George Orwell

Librorum annis

Friday, October 21, 2016

Book Review - No Surrender by Constance Maud

Published in 1911, at the height of the Women's Suffrage movement in Britain, No Surrender masterfully straddles the line between journalism and historical fiction.  Throughout the novel, there are factually accurate and stirring portrayals of suffragette protests and incidents, as well as their arguments in favor of giving women the vote.  The actions are carried out by fictional characters, but a close reading will give evidence that they are not-too-thinly-veiled representations of real people, such as Lady Constance Lytton and the Pankhursts.

These suffragettes were tenacious and dedicated to their cause.  Some of their protest verged on the humorous - having themselves delivered, as parcels, to the Prime Minister's front door with their petitions, and a large group of women pretending to be a fire brigade with a call to meeting instead of a call to fire.  Women's Suffrage supporters would ambush politicians after worship services or during dinner parties.  They would hand out pamphlets and spread their message through street corner oratory.  Some suffragettes would take more aggressive actions to draw attention to their cause, such as throwing rocks at windows of anti-suffrage supporters.  As the works became more violent, the police took a more active role in containing and detaining the suffragettes.

It was the courtroom and imprisonment scenes that affected me most.  The suffragettes were protesting for political equality.  However, precisely because they had no vote, they were not treated as political prisoners by the judicial system.  Suffragettes were condemned to the same class of prisoner as thieves and drunkards.  They were afforded almost no comforts, housed in squalid quarters, and if they dared to protest (as most did, for the injustices were plentiful inside as well as out of prison) the women were put in the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement.  Many women protested this punishment the only way they could, by refusing food.  To keep these prisoners alive, prison staff would force-feed them.  The brutal, horrific details of these forced feedings were not spared in No Surrender, and the actions themselves are akin to rape.  To think that women would willingly submit to such torture is proof of how stridently they believed in their cause.

Lovely Persephone Books edition with suffragette-colored endpapers!

What became clear through reading No Surrender was how strong the British class divides were, and how those divides played into the levels of sympathy and empathy afforded to the suffragettes by others.  The novel spends time with the aristocracy, the upper class, and the working class - exploring their lifestyles, prejudices, and how each group responds to the idea of Women's Suffrage.  No matter the social class, women had practically no power or authority.  A woman had no agency over her own children; one character's husband sends their children to live in Australia, without any notification or consent of his wife, and she can do nothing about it.  Many lower-class women and girls worked for long hours in excruciating conditions, and few cares were given about their welfare by the employers.  The meager wages they earned were not their own, but belonged to their husband/father.  For the women of the upper classes this was of little concern because they did not need to earn a living, but for working-class females it meant that they were prisoners in their lives and homes.  One of the great strengths of No Surrender is its focus on lower-class women and their struggles as part of the greater social movement in which Women's Suffrage found stead.

As a work of historical interest, the significance of No Surrender is self-evident.  However, it struggles as a work of literature.  The dialogue, especially of lower-class, Northern Brits, is stilted and full of stereotypical turns of phrase; it is distinctly different from the speech of the upper-class folk.  I suppose that this distinction serves to further illustrate class divides, although that point is somewhat invalidated by the characters of Jenny Clegg and Joe Hopton, working-class Northerners who have unusually exceptional speech.  There is little semblance of a plot at all in the novel.  In fact, the book isn't divided into chapters, but instead into "Scenes".  Each scene illustrates different episodes and points of relevance in the Women's Suffrage movement, and they function better when thought of as linked short stories rather than component parts to a whole.  There are also issues with the relationship between between Jenny Clegg and the two men whom propose marriage to her at different times.  Both relationships seem terribly contrived and inauthentic - perhaps the author's ploy to draw in more feminine readers who desire some romance in their novels.

No Surrender is an honest and searing account of what it meant (and took!) to be a British suffragette in the early twentieth century, no matter the social class.  Although the characters are fictional, the events are factual and historically faithful.  In terms of plot and dialogue the novel suffers.  It is not a great work of fiction, but it is a great work.

Librorum annis

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dewey's Readathon and TBR

Twice a year, in April and October, the 24-hour Dewey's Readathon takes place.  This Saturday, 22 October, is the next occasion.  The goal is to read as much as possible in a 24-hour span of time, and to share your reading updates with the rest of the Readathon community.  The hosts recommend filling your TBR pile with shorter books, so that you're not bogged down by anything too long and lose that loving feeling towards your reading.  In addition to the reading, sponsors donate prizes that are awarded via mini-challenges that happen randomly throughout the 24 hour span.  I'll be participating as a reader.

Sign up for the Readathon here!

I'm planning to do regular updates of my reading progress on Twitter and Instagram, and I'd love it if you would follow me!  My links are on the right-hand side of the blog page.  Also, if you have the app Litsy, I'd love to share readings there too! 

I live on the East Coast of the US, an my start time for the Readathon is 8:00am.  No matter where you live, across the globe, all Readathon-ers start at the same time, so check the Dewey's website for your time zone's starting time.  Because October 22nd is going to be a bit busy for me, I know that I won't be able to read for the entire 24-hour span.  Is that stopping me from participating?  Heck no!  After careful consideration, here are the books I'm putting on my Dewey's Readathon TBR:

  1. Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar
  2. The Woman's Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  3. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
  4. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  5. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  6. Maus Parts 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman
  7. The Essential "Dykes to Watch Out For" by Alison Bechdel
As you might have noticed, this TBR is very graphic novel-heavy.  That's by design, since I'll need to make the most of my available reading time.  I can finish graphic novels quite quickly, although at over 400 pages, I expect that Alison Bechdel's Essential Dykes will take a bit of time to read in its entirety.  And this TBR furthers a goal of mine - to focus my reading, in the weeks before the US Presidential Election, toward issues of diversity, feminism, tolerance, and equality.

Are you participating in Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon?  I'd love to know what you're planning to read!

Librorum annis

Monday, October 17, 2016

On TBR, Rereading, and a (Hypothetical) Challenge

It's reasonable to assume that individuals who create book blogs/vlogs, and those who frequent them, are passionate about reading books.  We may prefer different genres, styles, or formats.  Bring on the audiobooks, reading apps, e-books, and print editions!  We may acquire our books through a library, a bookshop, the Internet, or any number of other means.  No matter how books come into our lives, and in what form, we love them.

For some of us, we acquire our books more rapidly than we can read them.  Books borrowed from libraries (and sometimes, friends) come with a due date, so we know that you have a limited time to read and return them.  However, when books are brought home to keep, they can share our space for as long as we want.  For some readers, such as myself, this means that books will be there when I'm ready for them.  Even if I'm not interested in reading a particular book now, if I own it then it'll be there waiting for me.  It makes me feel hopeful and grateful for the books on my shelves.

For other readers, having unread books can be a source of anxiety and stress.  Unread books may be segregated to a specific TBR area of the home and kept there until they are read and added to the rest of the shelves.  There are many book bloggers/vloggers who propose a "TBR Zero" goal, whereby all unread books are consumed before any more books are brought.  I find this a very amiable, yet daunting objective, probably because of the sheer number of unread books on my shelves at the moment.  There exists a TBR Calculator where you can input the number of unread books, the number of books you read in the previous year, and your age.  The calculator will then display the amount of time it will take to read those books.  Enter at your own risk!

So let's say that you successfully read your entire TBR, and have zero unread books available (BTW: way to go!) - now what will you read?  Certainly you could go back to frequenting your library, and acquiring new and new-to-you books.  But what about all those books already sitting on your shelves?  This brings me to another aspect of the reading experience that deserves some exploration - rereading.

Rereading is simply the act of consuming content that has been previously read.  In the world of bibliophiles and book bloggers/vloggers, the topic of rereading seems to get very little love.  Why is that the case?  I suppose it has a bit to do with the fact that publishing is a commercial industry.  New books are released every week, and publishers are constantly trying to promote them.  Social media, YouTube, television, magazines, blogs, newspapers all spread the word about new books.  A person can't help but be affected in some way.  Many book lovers also enjoy wandering around indie/secondhand/chain bookshops.  The same with library book sales, yard sales, et al.  These are all ways that a person can unexpectedly get inundated with books.

But what if we were to take a different approach to reading?  It might sound rather revolutionary, so I'm going to propose it as a thought experiment.  Ignore the hype, ignore the shelf-talkers and beautifully curated tables of books.  Completely ignore those triggers to consumerism and turn back to the loving arms of the books that are sharing your space.  What if you were to select X-number of books, those you find especially meaningful, relevant, and important, and reread them regularly?  Taking it a step further - what if those were the only books you read...ever?  How would that transform the experience of reading, and might it also have a transformative effect on the reader?

This idea was generated from a vlogger named Paige, who has a YouTube channel called Paiges & Pages.  Titled "The Hardest Book Challenge Ever", the video proposes the idea of only reading the same 30 books over and over again.  Paige puts forth certain constraints on her list, for example counting a group of books in a series as one book, so that it's not exactly 30 individual tomes.  But the idea is that, after each subsequent experience reading the same book, you would become aware of more and more depth to the story, the characters, and its relationship to the world at large.

Intrigued?  Frightened?  Both?  If you're even slightly considering this challenge, how would you select your books, and what books would you select?  On the other hand, let's say you've been rereading certain books for awhile, and you've grown to the point where those books have nothing more to offer you.  Would you continue to reread those books, or would you take time to re-evaluate your list and make substitutions?  If so, what interval of time would you use for your evaluation?

There are a lot of questions here, and I'm still working through them myself.  Look for a future post with all of the (hypothetical) details and a list of rereading contenders.

Librorum annis

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Better Late Than Never - The Classics Book Tag

It's been about a year and a half since the original book blog post, introducing the Classics Book Tag, by It's a Books World appeared.   As I am a recent convert to the book blogging sphere, I thought that this would be a fun way to think about and engage with classic books.  I should note that these will be classics in the Western Cannon, as that is the literature with which I am most familiar and educated.  Here we go!

Question 1: An over-hyped classic that you really didn't like.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and I just don't get along well together.  I could not get excited about the much-trumpeted romance between Catherine and Heathcliff.  In fact, my Feministey-Senses were tingling throughout the reading experience; I was so angry at times that I wanted to thrown the book across the room.  This is a problem I have when reading much of the literature published before the 1960's; there is often a lot of inherent, accepted, systematic, and normalized sexism.  I cannot abide that in my personal life, and I have difficulty doing so in my reading life.  I'm sure there are many other classics that would fit this criteria, but Wuthering Heights is the one that sticks out in my mind most clearly.

Question 2: Favorite time period to read about
I especially enjoy reading about the inter-war period and into WW2.  There is so much societal change taking place at this time, and it's fascinating to see it portrayed in fiction and non-fiction.  Perhaps this is why I enjoy Persephone Books so much; this time period is their specialty!  Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes is an engaging collection of journalistic essays written for The New Yorker about life in London during WW2.  Persephone Books has also published two collections of her short stories from the same time period: Good Evening Mrs Craven and Minnie's Room.  The writing style is very engaging and entertaining, whilst still portraying characters in an honest and thoughtful way.

Question 3: Favorite fairy tale
Admittedly I don't read a great deal of fairy tales, and therefore I don't have many examples on my shelves.  I much prefer fairy tale retellings.  One such collection, that I very much enjoy, is Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales.  There is a mixture of original stories and retellings.  It is modern and ancient at the same time, and through her wordsmithing the author makes these stories relevant to today's audience.

Question 4: The most embarrassing classic that you haven't read
There are many classics that I haven't read yet.  I resist the notion that I should feel shame or inadequacy just because I have not read certain books.  That being said, when I mention that I haven't read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, many people seem surprised.

Question 5: The "top 5" classics you would like to read soon
  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  2. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  3. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
  4. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
  5. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Question 6: Favorite modern book/series based on a classic
I thoroughly enjoyed Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, his response to C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia epic.

Question 7: Favorite movie version/TV series based on a classic
Easy - the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehly.

Question 8: Worst classic-to-movie adaptation
I'm not a huge fan of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the movie adaptation with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman is difficult to watch in all its poorness.

Question 9: Favorite editions in which you'd like to collect more classics
  • Persephone Books
  • Penguin Fitzgerald Classics 
  • Canongate Myth series and Penguin 60's (pictured together)
  • Penguin Drop Caps

Question 10: An Underhyped classic that you would recommend
The novella Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville is a classic that very few people seem to know.  Actually, the ones who know about it tend to be aware through the independent publisher Melville House, who use Bartleby's phrase "I Would Prefer Not To" as their tagline, and print it on mugs, shirts, totebags, and other goods.  

If you're interested in answering these fun questions, consider yourself tagged!  

Librorum annis

Monday, October 10, 2016

Bookstore Tourism - Politics & Prose

I had the pleasure of paying my first visit to the main location of Politics & Prose bookshop in Washington, DC. last Friday evening. Opened in 1984, P&P is one of the most iconic bookstores in the Washington DC area, and indeed in the entire country.  One of my favorite food/cooking television personalities, Alton Brown, was on tour promoting his new cookbook Alton Brown Everyday, and made a stop in DC to have a chat and sign copies of the book.  As it was my first time at P&P, I knew I wanted some time to have a browse and get something to eat in the downstairs cafe.  The event started at 7:00pm and I arrived around 3:30pm.

View of the main entrance from Connecticut Ave.
The white rectangle is a sign promoting the author events that night. 
The bookstore is in a strip-mall, on busy Connecticut Ave NW, and all of the businesses share a small car lot in the back.  I was able to find a parking spot right away, but parking was tight and I can imagine that, at certain times of the day, it could be very frustrating to get in and out.  Many of my fellow bookshoppers said that they use Uber to get to P&P, and I can completely understand why.  The closest subway station is a 20 minute walk away, while there are plentiful bus stops within a few blocks.

From the parking lot, you enter directly into the cafe, called The Den, where I immediately ordered a coffee drink.  The weather was, for me, ideal book shopping conditions - chilly and rainy with overcast skies.  On days like this, I love nothing more than a hot beverage and endless stacks of books!  In addition to the cafe, the bottom floor is also home to the Children's Books area, a large selection of occasion cards, and remaindered books.  There were plenty of seats available, and a long table where a children's literacy group was holding a meeting.

Remaindered Cookbook Corner
Upstairs is the main book shopping area, with lots of new releases, reprints, and even an Opus print-on-demand device where readers can request printed copies of in-print and out-of-print books, via archival scans. The layout of the bookshop is very open and organized. It was easy, and very enjoyable, to browse about for hours.  And I did just that.

The week of September 25 - October 1, 2016 was Banned Books Week, and P&P was certainly participating in it.  You can read more about Banned Books Week here.  There was a large, beautiful window display about censorship and celebrating the freedom to read diversely.  Inside the store, there was a thoughtful display of books that have traditionally/historically/continually been challenged or banned.


In conjunction with Banned Books Week, the DC Public Library System held a week-long series of events called #Uncensored.  As part of this, the library system put special covers over hundreds of copies of the six the most-often challenged books across the USA.  Copies of those books were hidden all around DC in spots like libraries and partner businesses, as an urban scavenger hunt.  When you "find" one of these books in the wild, it's yours to keep for free!

I found a copy of Alice Walker's The Color Purple with "SMUT" printed on the extra cover.
Here is another book, just waiting for someone to come across it!
The Alton Brown event was a big draw, and the bookshop was PACKED with people!  I had gone downstairs to get some dinner in the cafe (root vegetable salad and mushroom soup - yum!), and by the time I came back upstairs around 6:00 there were already a lot of people seated and waiting.  Alton Brown was great - very enthusiastic and personable, full of stories and anecdotes from his past work on the food TV shows Good Eats, Iron Chef America, Feasting on Asphalt, and Cutthroat Kitchen.

After his presentation was over, Alton was willing to sign books or other ephemera the people brought.  I saw one woman, a few rows in front of me, with a ceramic turkey pepper shaker.  He was also taking pictures with everyone, so it was a very long evening, It was worth it, though!  I had a wonderful time and can't wait to visit Politics & Prose again!

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

September 2016 Reading Wrap Up

September was, all in all, a very good month of reading.  I read a total of nine books - a mixture of novels, short stories, flash fiction, and a non-fiction book for children.  I've written reviews for many of the books already, so I'll share some brief impressions below.

The books I read were:
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra
  • The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Mrs. Oliphant
  • The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
  • For the Love of Meat by Jenny Jaeckel (advanced reader copy, USA release 10/2016)
  • God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
  • Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Leaves Her Mark by Debbie Levy
  • Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (not pictured)

Housekeeping is a brief (less than 250 pages), atmospheric novel that envelops you in its quiet, dreamlike, and poetic prose, like a hand-crocheted, infinitely soft blanket.  The ethereal way with which Marilynne Robinson describes the town of Fingerbone, and its surrounds, imbues them with a quiet, palpable power.  Read my full review here.

It's difficult to categorize Alejandro Zambra's Multiple Choice because it doesn't follow anything remotely similar to a traditional narrative.  Using the structure of a standardized test forces the author to be economical and precise with his words.  Despite these constraints, the author's voice is not lost; there is a playful, sarcastic, devastatingly human soul throughout.  Read my full review here.

 The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow, published by Persephone Books, is a book that contains two novellas by the same author, Mrs. Oliphant.  The first novella, "The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow" relays the story of a widow and the scandal that arises after her name is found in a recent elopement registry.  The second novella, "Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond" involves a long-married couple and their adult children.  When the husband begins spending more and more time away from home, his wife decided to do her own investigating.  What she finds is quite shocking.  Considering that these two works were originally published in the later part of the 19th Century, it is refreshing to see women characters be given such complicated and interesting personal lives.

Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales features retellings of classic fairy tales as well as some highly original short stories.  The author creates or re-imagines stories that confront our humanity and encourages us to look at our world in new ways.  She uses emotion and diversity to great effect and may have created a new collection of tales to share with generations to come.  Read my full review here.

The Story of the Lost Child is the final installment in Elena Ferrante's "Neapolitan Novels" quartet.  It continues to follow lifelong friends Elena and Lila as they, the city of Naples, and the entire country of Italy grow and change from the late 1960's through to the mid 2000's.  In this book, as well as throughout the entire Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante uses the everyday lives of two girls to comment on life in all of its complexities.

I received an advanced reader copy of For The Love of Meat by Jenny Jaeckel from the small, independent publisher Raincloud Press; the paperback will not be published until 14 October, even though the e-book version of the text has been available since 20 August.  There are nine stories in this collection, accompanied by drawings reminiscent of the French cave paintings in Lascaux.  The stories have a nuanced approach to the human condition, but I found the collection to be disjointed, which negatively affected the reading experience for me.  Some were highly evocative and engaging, while others fell completely flat.

Although I own a hardcopy edition of God Help the Child, I listened to this in audiobook format.  Toni Morrison narrates the novel, as she does with all of her other works, and her voice is clear, strong, and world-weary.  This painfully beautiful book explores the ways that our childhood experiences shape and bind us as adults.  There are many occurrences of child abuse and racially-motivated crimes mentioned throughout, which can make the book difficult to read at times.  However, the way that the book ends is surprisingly satisfying and cautiously hopeful.  Morrison posits that we can either let our childhood define us and narrow us with fear and anger, or we can live our lives in response to it with love, compassion, and hope.

For those whose only experience with Jamaica is at an all-inclusive resort, Here Comes the Sun will be a rude awakening.  While resorts feature heavily in the story, the contrived paradise they offer is lampooned heartily by the author.  A native Jamaican, who immigrated to the USA after high school,  the author uses this novel to explore post-colonial ideas of class, sexuality, family, tourism, beauty - Jamaica itself.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy, is a children's book that shares the life story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her work in the USA legal system to fight for equality of all women and men.  It is not a picture book, and some of the language might be too advanced for young readers.  That being said, story time with this book would be an excellent way to engage a child in basic conversations about complex issues such as race, religion, sexism, intolerance, equality, and social justice.

Flush, a Biography, published by Persephone Books, is Virginia Woolf's attempt to give a life story to Flush, the real-life spaniel companion of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  On one level, it is just that.  However, on another level, the book is a critique of then-modern English society.  Because of his status and stature, Flush is always a continual foreigner in his world.  This canine naivety allows Woolf to comment the socioeconomic and class divides that were so prevalent in England at the time.  Read my full review here.

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Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Review - Here Comes the Sun

For those whose only experiences with Jamaica are at all-inclusive resorts, Here Comes the Sun is a shocking, eye-opening book.  While resorts feature heavily in the story, the contrived paradise they offer is lampooned heavily by the author.  A native Jamaican, who moved to the USA after high school, Nicole Dennis-Benn uses this book to explore post-colonial ideas of class, beauty, sexuality, family, tourism - Jamaica itself.

The main characters are three generations in the same family - Merle (grandmother), Delores (mother), Margot (elder daughter, 30 years old), and Thandi (younger daughter by 15 years).  There is a noticeable lack of masculine characters throughout the story, whether they are fathers, siblings, or lovers.  Although their physical presence is non-existent, their impressions on the women are lasting.  The men's absence takes the form of leaving for another woman, leaving for another country, leaving for prison, or leaving for the afterlife.

Thandi is finishing her last year at a prestigious, Catholic high school.  Because education is not free in Jamaica, her sister and mother both very hard to earn enough money to pay the school fees, leaving very little for rent, food, or other essentials.  So little, in fact that they live in a shack in a poor community away from any major town.  All of her family's hopes and dreams for a better life are essentially on Thandi's shoulders, whether she wants the responsibility or not.

Margot is employed as a housekeeping staff supervisor at one of the resorts, but she earns her real money after-hours as a prostitute for the guests.  One of her clients was the previous hotel owner, and his son Alphonso is a current client.  He offers Margot the chance to earn more money as a pimp, recruiting other young girls to work for her, who would service his high-profile resort clients and friends.  As she becomes more successful, and acquires more material wealth, she also becomes more ruthless and conniving, isolating herself from her family, coworkers, and her lover Verdeen.  Ambition blinds her to the ways she is losing herself.

Delores sells clothing, food, trinkets, and other souvenirs to sell at markets near cruise ship ports and other tourist areas.  Delores' life straddles the time before and after Jamaica obtained its independence from the UK, and she is really representative of the lasting effects that colonization left on Jamaica.  She is so abused, defeated, and damaged throughout her life, both by her own family and by society as a whole, and she passes that down to her daughters.  Her specific abuses, as seen in a vacuum, are horrifically cruel.  However, when you take Delores' words and actions in the context of her own life, you can almost understand why she does what she does.  It certainly doesn't make her behavior okay, but you can see the underlying assumptions and experiences.

Grandma Merle, as she is known, is an elderly woman who is mute and does little except sit and observe the world around her.  She sits in a kind of unvoiced judgment over the other women in the household.  Ostensibly, she is mute because her beloved son (Delores' brother) ran away to America; the day he left, without a word to anyone, she stopped talking.  Her silence is also symbolic of all the horrors and trauma that Jamaica experienced during colonialism.  She has seen and heard and lived through things so atrocious that words are inadequate.

Many of the other girls in Thandi's school are lighter-skinned than her, and the beauty standards in the culture implicitly tell girls that dark skin is ugly.  She is encouraged to chemically lighten her skin by a neighbor woman, who applies a painful hydrogen peroxide solution to Thandi's body and wraps her in cellophane to help the mixture work.  As her skin begins to lighten, she feels more attractive but encounters harsh criticism from other women who see her as having something wrong with herself.  As with beauty standards, sexuality is a complicated part of Jamaican culture.  Christianity is very prevalent, and with it comes a rigid heteronormativity.  A side character, widely-known to be a lesbian, only wants to be able to live in peace in her home.  Her neighbors and other villagers regard her as an evil witch because of her sexual orientation.  They refuse to talk to her or do business with her in the markets, and take every opportunity to insult, harass, intimidate, and physically assault her.  Despite this religiousness, prostitution is rampant throughout Jamaica.  For many women, especially in the lower classes, the sex industry is seen as their best chance to earn money. 

There are also quite a few pedophiles and sexual predators who live amongst the characters in this book.  Most of the women are victims of sexual violence.  Thandi's first sexual experience is rape, as a very young girl, by an alcoholic who live in her village.  Margot, as a child, was repeatedly raped by the man who would become Thandi's biological father.  Margot is the product of Delores' rape.  Despite their prevalence, there are no occasions where these pedophiles are punished for their crimes.  The characters seem to regard sexual violence with tolerance because the act is habitually committed.  It's just the way of life for lower-class females.  They are so disenfranchised that they no power or faculty to protect themselves in society.

Here Comes the Sun is a challenging story, because it speaks a truth that is difficult to hear.  Travelers who vacation in Jamaican resorts want to have a happy and relaxing experience.  Because of their money, and how/where they choose to spend it, they are able to enjoy a kind of cultural ignorance.  However, it's their money that keeps the government and society perpetuating class divides and many other detrimental patterns.  This is very awareness-making and eye-opening read.

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