Booked All Week

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Archive for January 2012

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

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While I was completely bowled over by Anna Karenina when I read it a few years ago, I was pleased to be able to visit Tolstoy again without having to make such a long-term commitment to him. I will get to War and Peace eventually, but for now I crave nothing more than this short tale was able to provide.

Ivan Ilyich is an ordinary man with average ambitions and realistic  expectations who aspires only to live pleasurably and with propriety. As a respected judge, husband, and father, he does his duty and does it well. He bows graciously to the authority of his superiors and enjoys the position of power he maintains in respect to others. He is pleased with himself and with his achievements, until he falls ill as an older man.

Just as there is nothing remarkable about Ivan Ilyich’s life, there is nothing remarkable about his slow struggle toward death. His physical and spiritual decay is monstrous only because it is so banal. Ivan Ilyich considers himself perfectly satisfied in health, but in sickness he questions all the big life choices that have led to the present moment of his dying. He is angry and resentful that he must be a burden to his family, and that, like him, they are unable to fully understand what is happening to him. He sees nothing special in life, yet cannot surrender to leaving it. His last hours are spent producing a terrible scream, an insufferable howling “O” sound that haunts his family for an entirety of three days.

There is nothing interesting about this story, which is what makes it so stunning. An ordinary death is a predictable end to an ordinary life, and yet that ordinariness is itself what is so frightening. What the accused are to the judge, we all eventually become to death (ahem, are you totally bummed out yet?). This is an important reminder for all who can to live extraordinarily; for Ivan Ilyich’s battle is not only against death, but the ways in which it both cloaks and exposes mediocrity in life.

This is an unsettling and articulate investigation of mortality which I’m sure only becomes more disturbing and poignant with time. Recommended, then, with the caveat that this is Heavy Stuff.

Written by Emily Jane

January 26, 2012 at 10:22 pm

…Twitter? *Gulp*

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So, here’s the deal. I’ve put off the whole Twitter thing for a while now, and am probably one of the last of my generation (with regular hi-speed internet access!) to do so. I don’t know, I’ve just been stubborn about it! You know how that happens, sometimes? You just decide that you don’t like something for no reason and convince yourself that you’ll never have any use for it?

Well, next week I’m starting a new internship with The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a non-profit that advocates for small, independent publishers. I’m really excited about it! And one of my Digital Marketing duties is, of course, to tweet for them. So, I’ve made a practice account @bookedallweek. Follow me, if you’d like! Who knows, maybe I’ll even keep the account open a while, if it turns out I have enough to chirp about.

Now, some fun miscellany: The picture I’m using on Twitter is of my bunny, Taco, posing atop my computer case with a paint can and an old copy of The Color Purple that I sacrificed to him about a week ago. He has great taste in books…in NIBBLING them that is! (I couldn’t find my camera, so this dark and fuzzy iPhoto is the best I could do. Sorry!)

The binding on this book fell apart before Taco was able to sink his teeth into it, so no real harm was done to any book in the making of this photo!

I find that it’s surprisingly easy to live with a furry little book-eating monster if I just allow him an old, beat up toss-a-way every now and again to temper his voracious appetite for words.

Written by Emily Jane

January 19, 2012 at 11:38 pm

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Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch

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Under the Net is a delightful, breezy novel starring Jake Donaghue, a little-known writer who gets by on translation work. When he and his friend Finn are kicked out of the apartment they’d been crashing rent-free, he seeks out his blues-singing ex-girlfriend Anna Quentin in a fit of homeless desperation. So begins a strange series of adventures by which Jake becomes reacquainted with Anna, her movie star sister Sadie, and his old mild-mannered friend Hugo whose philosophical nature he once adored and whom he believes he has regretfully, irrevocably wronged.

Jake is unreliable and irresponsible, perhaps, but completely lovable. He impulsively follows his renewed feelings for Anna all over London and Paris and, in one of the funniest parts of the book, enlists the help of his friend Finn to kidnap a rich bookie’s acting dog to exchange for a stolen typescript at the center of a malicious plot between Sadie and the bookie-turned film investor.

The changing relationships in this novel remind me of the Robertson Davies novels that comprise the Deptford Trilogy, which is high praise coming from me. It’s the mysterious, undefinable and lasting pull that develops between friends, lovers, even enemies, that gives each relationship meaning, and each person meaning in relation to others. It’s as though Jake is searching, throughout the novel, to figure out where he belongs in terms of all these people who have meant something to him…but massive miscommunications and crossed love-lines make the answers to his question that much more elusive. I love how deeply Jake feels friendship; his romanticism is non-threatening and alluring.

This book was fun, lively, and light. I enjoyed it fully, and will be reading Murdoch again soon!

Written by Emily Jane

January 18, 2012 at 10:00 am

Posted in Novels

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The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

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The Famished Road is narrated by Azaro, an abiku spirit child who, according to traditional Yoruba belief, struggles to be born, maintains a close connection to the world of spirits, and is continuously tempted to return to the peaceful, blissful kingdom of the afterlife. Azaro occupies a special plane between life and death, and it is from this unique vantage point that he witnesses the increasing destitution and political violence that overtakes the unnamed West-African city in which he lives.

The book is long, dense and fantastical. I consider myself a fan of magical realism, though I haven’t read any in a very long time. In this case, there were times when that element here was too much for me and it took me a while to become comfortable with the rhythm of the narrative. Once I did, though, I was completely hooked. This story is truly epic. It’s not only about one community or any particular power dispute, but the history of Africa as a whole and it’s continuous attempts at rebirth.

The characters read like vehicles for ideas, which serves the larger purpose of the novel but was a bit distancing for me. I was fascinated by Madame Koto, proprietress of the neighborhood bar who has a mysterious  interest in Azaro, and the local photographer, whose work enables visual communication with the rest of the world. But as this is not a character-driven novel, I never felt I learned enough about them. His hardworking parents, and his mania-driven father, especially, made even less sense to me as people.

What I found incredible about this novel, though, was the way in which Okri was able to represent a worldview in which spiritual and material realities exist simultaneously and co-dependently. Historical and political patterns look entirely different from this perspective, as does an imagined future for Africa. The Famished Road was not always an easy read, but it was incredibly thought-provoking and I’m glad I pushed through the difficult parts. This is an ambitious novel of big ideas, and it won’t soon be forgotten.

Written by Emily Jane

January 16, 2012 at 10:00 am

Posted in Novels

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A Year of Feminist Classics, 2012

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I am pleased to announce that A Year of Feminist Classics is now entering a second year with an excellent reading list and a number of new co-hosts! It took us a while to get organized (the holidays, and all), so we’ll be running the project from February 2012–January 2013. Each book will be presented by one main host, but we’ll be working together to ensure continuity in the case of real-life distractions. Here’s what we’ll be reading, with the name of each month’s host in parentheses and a link to their own blogs:

  • February – Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (Amy)
  • March – The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine De Pizan (Jean)
  • April – Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (Cass)
  • May – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë read alongside Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Iris)
  • June – Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (Emily)
  • July – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Nancy)
  • August – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Lauren)
  • September – Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua (Melissa)
  • October – The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (Jodie)
  • November – Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi (Ana)
  • December – Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis (Emily Jane)
  • January – Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Eva)

If possible, I’m even more excited about the project this year than I was last year. I’m so glad that it’s being continued with more hosts and, hopefully, with more participants!

As Ana wrote in her introduction to this year’s plans,

We invite you all to think of this project as an informal feminist reading group. You don’t have to commit to joining the discussion every month, but we’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you’re able to. We’re very excited to read these books together, and we hope we’ll have the opportunity to continue to learn from each other and from you.

If you’re not yet involved but at all interested, we’d love to have you join us…on your own terms 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

January 15, 2012 at 6:22 am

Power Politics, by Arundhati Roy

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Arundhati Roy, author of the novel The God of Small Things, is an activist as well as a writer. In this collection of essays published in 2001, Roy bestows her vast knowledge about the many problems that have come of contemporary India’s struggle toward rapid development with casual wit and a healthy dose of sarcasm. Whether it’s the takeover of U.S.-funded energy companies, the power of the written word and the role of writers in a country with soaring rates of illiteracy, or the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people by the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, Roy is at ease playing offense.

The “modernization” of India has not effected all Indians equally. In fact, most of the country’s population still live in extreme poverty and might as well be worlds away from the small elite that benefits from the country’s development. What Roy sees is not one country at all, but “two Indias” completely at the mercy of an all encompassing tech-divide. She’s highly critical of so-called “experts”, whose particularized knowledge is unfairly deemed superior to all other forms of knowing–like experiential–and I really appreciate that.

Her writing is catchy, but a little unfocused at times. If I let my mind wander even the slightest, I’d find myself lost. And the two essays about 9/11 and America’s War on Terror were good, but did feel dated. At this point, you’ve read them, even if you haven’t read them. Many times. It makes me wonder about the rest, for which I have very little personal context within which to determine their relevancy as I know so little about India. In any case, these essays are an interesting window into India and global power relations…at least as they existed at the turn of the twenty first century.

I haven’t been particularly blown away by either The God of Small Things or Power Politics, but I have enjoyed them both, would recommend them, and look forward to reading more of Roy’s work.

Written by Emily Jane

January 11, 2012 at 5:55 am

Posted in Essays, Non-fiction

Reading Projects: Kenyan Authors and Victorian Spiritualism

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This semester of school will be my last…at least for the foreseeable future. I’m both happy and nervous about that (but mostly happy, since honestly, I’m still in complete denial about what that’s going to mean for me as far as responsibility and sense of life-direction and all that goes). But I’d like to keep the studious habit of looking closely into specific subjects that interest me even as I leave college. Setting myself up for some more directed reading will help me do that, I think. So, I’ve come up with a few short-term reading projects for myself that I’m very, very excited about!!!

The first is in conjunction with a trip I’ll be making with my mom, and possibly my brother, to Kenya next July/August. My mom’s been involved for years with a non-profit that operates there and assists rural communities in digging wells and maintaining their own fresh, clean water supplies. We’re going to do a site visit! (We’ll be doing a few other things, too, but our plans are still a bit up in the air at this point so I can’t share them). I am beyond thrilled. Together, we’re going to prepare by reading one Kenyan author a month–and one book about Kenya–until our departure (mom’s a big reader too). Our tentative reading list includes:

1. Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

2. The Other Woman OR Land Without Thunder, by Grace Ogot

3. The River and the Source, by Margaret Ogola

4. One Day I Will Write About this Place: A Memoir, by Binyavanga Wainaina

5. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, by Caroline Elkins

6. The Challenge for Africa OR Unbowed: A Memoir, by Wangari Maathai

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favorite Kenyan author? Would you recommend different titles by these same authors? Anyone I MUST add? Have you been to Kenya/have suggestions for my trip? Please do let me know!

My second project, which I would wait until the fall to start if I weren’t so curious about it, is to read at least three of the following five books about women and Victorian spiritualism this year:

1. Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism, by Marlene Tromp

2. The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channelling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859–1919, by Jill Galvan

3. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, by Alex Owen

4. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, by Barbara Weisberg

5. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America, by Ann Braude

I think there’s just enough variety of focus in those titles to keep it non-redundant. Have you read anything on the subject worth checking out?

I’ve had so much fun compiling these short lists…I hope these projects are successful if only so that I can keep designing them. I’ve got a few other ideas in mind, already (Victorian circus cultures, you’re up next)!

Have any specific subjects have caught your reading imagination lately?

Written by Emily Jane

January 5, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Affinity, by Sarah Waters

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Having read–and loved–The Little Stranger last year, I foresaw that Affinity would likely make for a fun, engaging, and creepy post-finals-intro-to-winter-break indulgence read. Which it was. Though it rests on a decidedly lower rung of my estimation than does The Little Stranger, I was still gladly grabbed by the suspenseful rush of the story. And with a Victorian women’s prison as the setting, and the trend of spiritualism as a key element of the plot*, how could I not be?

“Spinster” Margaret Prior is a Lady Visitor to Millbanks, where she is to set an encouraging example for the prison’s inmates. She makes a special friend of Selina Dawes, a calm and quiet girl who proves to be one of the prison’s most mysterious wards. Miss Prior feels strongly for Selina, who claims innocence and maintained visitations from spirits. Miss Prior is skeptical, at first, but as her desire for Selina grows, and strange objects manifest both within and outside the bars of Selina’s cell, she must call into question her own convictions, feelings, and secret histories all at once–and the result is startling.

I find the supernatural amusing in theory, but I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to summon enough suspension of disbelief for this book. Luckily–and without giving too much away, I hope (um, spoiler alert?)–some of that skepticism was vindicated by a twist ending. The twist ending was a little out of left field, I thought, and at times throughout the book the emotional melodrama was a bit much (whereas the intensity of emotion was very subtle, I thought, in The Little Stranger, and there was considerable and gradual lead-up to the “twist”, which I prefer). I really enjoyed Water’s exploration of Victorian punishment, sexual repression, and spiritualist subculture, though, so for me this book was still totally worth reading.

*New Year’s reading resolution: find out more about this whole spiritualism thing.

Written by Emily Jane

January 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized