Booked All Week

and next week, too

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

Tagged with ,

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

2011 Favorites and Wrap-Up

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This year I read significantly less than last, which was both my first year blogging and keeping track. I gave very few 5-star ratings on Goodreads, maybe because I took more chances by straying from the “classics” and breaching new-to-me topics. I guess those risks didn’t quite pay off this year, though I will continue to take them in the future. Here’s the small list of books that got 5 stars from me this year:

Fiction:

Half of A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

Honorable mentions:

The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar

Novellas:

So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba

Non-Fiction:

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, by Sharon Marcus

The Invention of Heterosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz

Honorable mentions:

Nymphomania: A History, by Carole Groneman

Biography:

The Sound of Wings: The Story of Amelia Earhart, by Mary S. Lovell

Essays:

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives, by Patricia Bell-Scott and Juanita Johnson-Bailey

Honorable mentions:

Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, edited by Michelle Tea 

I bet you can spot a few of my favorite themes, particularly in my non-fiction reading 🙂

And there you have it! As for 2012, The Year of Feminist Classics project that Amy, Ana, Iris and I hosted this year will be continued. We’re adding more hosts so that we will be better able to cover for each other when we’re busy (which is a lot, these days) and will be making the announcement about this year’s reading list soon.

So far I haven’t joined any challenges. I’m more interested in challenges this year than I was last, but honestly, I haven’t across any yet that particularly grab me. I might sign up for a few a little later down the road, but for now I’m still pretty happy leaving my reading plans wide open.

Thank you to everyone who’s commented here or inspired me to comment at your place. I’m so grateful for all the bloggy friends I’ve made and kept this year, and can’t wait to keep talking books with you all in 2012! Happy New Year’s Eve!!!


Written by Emily Jane

December 31, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Posted in Misc., Uncategorized

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love, by Dava Sobel

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Galileo’s Daughter is a joint biography of Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun and the closest to him of his three children. Sobel gracefully recalls Galileo’s successes as a scientist and inventor; among them, the telescope, which aided him in support of the argument that the Earth moves around the Sun and is not, in fact, the center of the universe. Of course, she has no choice but to recall as well that for this conviction, Galileo was interrogated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for heresy despite the strength of his own religious beliefs. What’s particularly interesting about her telling of these events, which so greatly informed popular constructs of science and faith as opposing and mutually exclusive practices, is that the surviving letters that Galileo received from his daughter throughout the years are neatly incorporated throughout the book and shine light on a relationship that was central to both Galileo and his daughter, lending the tale personal and human appeal.

After reading Heloise and Abelard last spring, I developed somewhat of an interest in convents and the lives of nuns, which was nice to re-visit through the letters of Suor Maria Celeste. She wrote to her father frequently, sparing no detail of her daily life and activity. Unfortunately, without the same sort of analysis that was present in Heloise and Abelard, this became a bit tiresome. I was hoping their correspondence would more directly relate to the impact and implications of the astronomical discoveries that Galileo was making, but most of Suor Maria Celeste’s contributions to their dialogue were about purely domestic matters. She worried deeply about her father due to his chronic illnesses and this worry only increased, as one might imagine, with the political and religious tensions that lead to his interrogation by the Holy Office. She seemed to dote on him in a very sweet way that spoke to the depth of her love for him, but–and this is no fault of Sobel’s–it was strange to read her letters without also being able to read his letters to her (his were burned when they were found in her convent). It was clear that he loved and respected her for her intelligence and her character, yet the relationship could only appear painfully one-sided given the presentation.

What Sobel did well, I thought, was remind the reader of just how mind-blowing Galileo’s observations were at the time. It is difficult to imagine how unnerving it must have been, to have visual confirmation that our place in the universe was so drastically different from what had been assumed. Galileo’s work was completely disruptive of all existing patterns of thought and understanding, be they religious, political, or just every-day. Not only that, but these discoveries were taking place during a time of authoritative turnover in both politics and religion (which often amounted to the same) as well as the growing horror of a quickly-spreading plague. This context is crucial to understanding how and why Galileo came to be seen as THE figure at the center of a growing conceptual divide between science and faith, and Sobel connects those dots skillfully.

In the end, I got what I wanted from this book, which was only to reacquaint myself with some general history of science. I used to read a lot of pop-science books, which I’ve been thinking I might get back into, but it’s a subject (um, a super broad one, I realize) that I haven’t much touched since high school. I also got to learn a bit more about what it might have been like to live as a nun in Galileo’s time (1564-1642) and that was nice. But it wasn’t much more than that. It was a recap of things I’ve learned and forgotten, but nothing that struck me as particularly new and exciting. And while I was interested in the relationship between Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, I didn’t feel that their correspondence actually gave me a real sense of either’s personality. It also sometimes felt like an unnecessary detour from the more compelling story of Galileo’s discoveries and their ramifications. However, I would be willing to read Sobel again. In fact, her book Longitude sounds pretty fascinating. I wouldn’t rush out to read this one if you don’t have a particular interest, is all.

Written by Emily Jane

December 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm

A Few Fun Links

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Did you all hear this story on NPR? Next month, Sotheby’s auctioning house will be taking bids on a 4,000 word magazine created by a teenaged Charlotte Bronte and her siblings. It contains short stories, news items, and advertisements, and it’s so small that it fits in the palm of a hand and must be read with a magnifying glass!

In one of Charlotte’s stories — a “powerful evocation of madness, especially when you think this is coming from a 14-year-old girl,” Heaton says — a man imprisons his enemy in the attic. He goes mad with guilt and imagines his enemies setting fire to his bed curtains.

It’s a scene that prefigures the famous madwoman-in-the-attic and the bed burning from Jane Eyre, proving that this small manuscript might be more than just a curiosity. Heaton says, “There are clear links between this manuscript … and the later work.”

So cool.

In other news, my favorite comics character, T-Rex of Dinosaur Comics, read Pride and Prejudice the other day. Well, he saw one of the movies, anyway, and offers a very insightful interpretation of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship.

Heehee 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

December 5, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Schoolgirl, by Osamu Dazai

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This book was kindly sent to me by One Peace Books, who have recently issued a new translation of the original work published in 1939.

The schoolgirl at the center of Dazai’s stream-of-consciousness novella is cynical, inquisitive, self-conscious, and superior all at once. She is a teenager, after all. Her mood swings are not just the ol’ adolescent hormones rearing their familiar, monstrous heads, though. As she takes us through a single day of her life, we see that she is battling demons both inside herself and out. Her classmates may irritate her, but that is nothing compared to the turmoil she feels at the recent loss of her father and the heavy cloud of mourning that weighs upon her mother. Her immediate concerns about teachers, friends, and house-guests seem unimportant on their own, but taken together they mark a process by which our troubled narrator learns to construct her own identity in what she sees as a world of cowardly conformity. She is quick-witted and a reader herself, wholly caught up in books and stories which, of course, I found wonderfully endearing.

The unnamed schoolgirl is eager to grow up, to be treated like an adult. At the same time, though, she dreads becoming a woman. She sees the lack of personality in her friend Kinko as inextricably linked to her incredible femininity and, upon recalling a heavily made-up woman she saw on the train that morning, proclaims that “women are disgusting” and “impure” (p. 47).

It’s as if that unbearable raw stench that clings to you after playing with goldfish has spread all over your body, and you wash and wash but you can’t get rid of it. Day by day, it’s like this, until you realize that the she-odor has begun to emanate from your own body as well. I wish I could die like this, as a girl. (p. 47)

I take these comments to be expressions of the physical and psychological disturbance she feels at the changes occurring both within her own body and in the social role she’s expected to play as a Japanese woman. She seems unimpressed with the examples of both her female teacher and her mother and dreads being confined to a similar fate. I do hope that my reading of her repulsion as masking disdain for sexist constraints imposed upon women, rather than actually being a set criticism of women as people, is not too generous! Though this is a big generalization, I do think that a lot of young women struggle with this kind of internalized misogyny and experience it as a very personal defect, which would support my interpretation. Whether it was Dazai’s intent to invoke this internal process, though, I am not certain.

The book’s strength lies in Dazai’s ability to write a story that is both culturally specific and widely relatable. Its about navigating Japanese society and cultural norms as a girl, but it’s also simply about being youthful, restless, and discontent. Some of the schoolgirl’s voice was obscured by the roller-coaster of emotions evoked throughout the text, but perhaps that’s part of the point. Ultimately, I think that enjoyment of Schoolgirl might hinge on one’s desire to revisit (or just visit, if you are a younger reader) both the idealistic highs and despairing lows of adolescence. At this point, as someone who is no longer a teenager but still far from getting all nostalgic about it, I am pretty ambivalent about doing that and so my feeling about the book was a bit ambivalent as well. It’s ironic that this ambivalence is due to Dazai’s success in writing about such a particular emotional and developmental state. While I am short of enthusiastic about Schoolgirl, it was a good introduction to Osamu Dazai, who I am now interested in reading more of. Not a favorite, then, but well worth the read.

Written by Emily Jane

December 1, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Posted in Novellas

Tagged with ,