I’m probably not the target audience for this book—I’m not particularly looking for encouragement in creative pursuits—but my fiancé got a copy as a gift and I ended up picking it up from the shelf while waiting for a library hold on a different book to come in. Gilbert’s tone is conversational and engaging, and she tells lots of great stories about her own writing life, and about the artistic pursuits of others, all under the broad themes of Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity.

Early in the book, she defines “creative living” as “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear” (9). Later in the book, she returns to the idea of curiosity—noting that she thinks that telling someone to follow their curiosity is better than telling them to follow their passion, since passion may feel too big or intimidating or people may not know what theirs is, whereas with curiosity, you can start small and see where it takes you. I like that, and I liked Gilbert’s own story about following her curiosity, when she realized she was interested in gardening (though she never had been previously). She talks about how she planted a garden, then found herself doing research to find out where the plants in her garden came from. She then realized she was interested not so much in the “garden itself, but the botanical history behind it—a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue,” which ended up being the subject of one of her novels (243).

Gilbert is big on choosing to look at things in ways that make things easier for yourself, not harder for yourself, which makes a lot of sense to me. Like: she rejects the idea of the tortured artist/thinks that “too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure” (209). She talks about interpreting certain situations in certain ways, like when she writes about how a story she submitted was rejected, then later ended up being accepted by the same person for the same publication. The accepted story was submitted by Gilbert’s agent, and she talks about how she could have a negative interpretation of this, thinking that “it’s who you know” that matters, rather than talent (193). But as she puts it, she would rather take it as proof that “miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up” (ibid.) (As she also points out, she doesn’t know the other circumstances around the initial rejection or later acceptance: maybe the first time around, her story was read at the end of a long and difficult day; maybe the second time around, the person reading it was in a great mood.) Even some things she chooses to believe that may seem bonkers (ahem, like the idea that ideas have their own “will” and “consciousness”(35)) can be seen in this same spirit: if you start with the idea that there is an abundance of ideas and that the right one will come to you, your experience of creativity may end up being less pressured, more full of a sense of wonder.

I like how much joy there is in this book, whether Gilbert is advising readers to “Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self” (161) or talking about a woman she knew who became an expert in ancient Mesopotamian history at the age of eighty or relating a story about a guy in a lobster costume. And now I kind of want to read that novel that Gilbert wrote that came from her curiosity about plants!

Daisy Miller by Henry James

April 6th, 2021

In her introduction to the edition I read, Elizabeth Hardwick describes Daisy Miller as “an intramural battle between middle-aged, deracinated American women long abroad and a young, provincial American girl whose naturalness and friendliness are more suitable to hometown streets than to the mysteries of European society.” Hardwick also talks about “the banal social proprieties that will condemn the provincial spontaneity, friendliness, and forthrightness of Daisy,” and yeah, that about sums it up. Daisy is an American girl in Europe with her bratty younger brother and her ineffectual mother; while they’re in Vevey, Switzerland, she meets Frederick Winterbourne, who’s 27 or so. He’s charmed by her beauty and alternately charmed/puzzled/bothered by her flirtatiousness, lack of interest in or knowledge of proper social behavior, and general idiosyncrasies. They talk in a garden and visit a castle. Later, in Rome, their paths cross again, only now Daisy is flirting with “various third-rate Italians”, though mostly just one in particular. She scandalizes all the American expat society ladies by “flirting with any man she can pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partner; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night”: clearly “she has been going too far.” Winterbourne alternates between trying to give Daisy advice on how not to be ostracized and trying to tell others that she’s just a clueless innocent, though he can’t decide whether he thinks she actually is innocent or not. Without giving away the ending entirely: he ultimately decides she’s innocent, but at that point it’s too late. He goes back to Geneva and his normal life, where rumor has it he’s romantically involved with “a foreign lady, a person older than himself” (hm, double standard much?!).

I didn’t love Daisy Miller, though I didn’t hate it either. There are some funny moments—Daisy’s brother asking Winterbourne for a lump of sugar and promptly taking three; Winterbourne thinking maybe Mr. Miller is dead when Daisy’s brother says he’s “in a better place than Europe” (the kid just means his dad is in Schenectady); Winterbourne’s aunt and her friends gossiping in church in the midst of a service—and some pleasing descriptions of European scenery, which I wanted more of. Also, I associate James with super-long/lush/elegant sentences, which I didn’t really find much of in this book—maybe that’s more characteristic of his later work, but at any rate, I missed that style.

I’m not sure how I never had to read Macbeth in its entirety when I was in school, but I didn’t, and despite feeling like I knew many little pieces of it via cultural osmosis/Drunk Shakespeare/Sleep No More/Hamilton song lyrics/having to learn Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking speech in junior high English class, when I told my fiancé that I “knew the plot”, what actually came out of my mouth when he said “yeah? tell me” was basically “Macbeth wants to be king; some murders are done; there are witches.” Having read it, I’ll stick to that as my plot summary. But I’m glad I did finally read it, even if it is not my favorite Shakespeare play. As you presumably already know, Macbeth’s “black and deep desires” and “vaulting ambition” don’t turn out so well for him or for Lady Macbeth, but at least the two of them have some great speeches along the way. I liked finally experiencing the play’s many highlights in their full context—the dagger vision in act 2 scene 1; Banquo’s ghost; the “weird sisters” and their prophecies, all in their proper place in the play as a whole.

In the ten chapters of The Outermost House, Henry Beston writes about the year he spent living in a two-room cottage on the Atlantic-facing beach on Cape Cod in the 1920s. Many of the people on Goodreads who don’t like this book seem to wish it had more of a “plot,” but it isn’t that kind of book. What happens is life: seasons and migrations and weather, and beach-walks at all hours. As I’ve mentioned, I am often more a mood-driven reader than a plot-driven reader, so this was fine with me: I found the book lovely and meditative and enjoyed looking up pictures of many of the plants and birds Beston mentions, from Artemisia stelleriana to the Least Tern. I like the way that Beston writes about the changing light and the ceaseless surf; I like the way he talks about watching the beam from Nauset Light flash on his bedroom wall. I like how he describes how when birds take flight, they move as one; he says they’re “instantly turned into a constellation of birds, into a fugitive pleiades whose living stars keep their chance positions” (23). And I like his description of animals in general as “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of light and time” (25).

As far as the human world, Beston writes about his friends in the Coast Guard, how they patrol the beach day and night, and about the shipwrecks from which they rescue (or attempt to rescue) sailors and fishermen. (One of the shipwrecks he writes about, that of the Portland, was before his time at the Cape, but it was interesting to read about nevertheless.) But his descriptions of nature are really the highlight of the book, and I was enthralled whether he was talking about dogfish or terns or phosphorescence or seeing a meteor streak past one night in July. I love phrases like this: “high in space and golden light the myriads of birds drifted and whirred like leaves” (212). Or passages like this:

The winter sea was a mirror in a cold, half-lighted room, the summer sea is a mirror in a room burning with light. So abundant is the light and so huge the mirror that the whole of a summer day floats reflected on the glass. Colours gather there, sunrise and twilight, cloud shadows and cloud reflections, the pewter dullness of gathering rain, the blue, burning splendour of space swept free of every cloud. (194-195)

Annie John is a coming-of-age novella; it tells the story of its narrator’s childhood and adolescence on the island of Antigua, from when she’s ten up to the point where she leaves for England at age seventeen. The changing nature of her relationship to her mother, as she grows older, is a big part of the book: Annie talks about her bewilderment at the shift she feels from childhood, when she felt she was unquestioningly adored, doted on, and cared for, to later, when she feels judged, ignored, and betrayed.

For the first half of the book I didn’t feel entirely engaged with Annie or her story, though there were details I appreciated; the book’s second half felt much more immediate and engrossing to me, maybe because Annie is older and the events she’s narrating are closer to her in time. Annie is a somewhat prickly child: in the first chapter she talks about going to funerals of people she doesn’t know, without telling her parents; she has close friendships with a few other girls, but as she grows older she seems distant from everyone; she’s very smart and does well at school, but she’s also rebellious.

The way Kincaid writes about Annie’s unhappiness when she’s a teenager, which is followed by a mysterious illness, is really vivid and excellent. “In the year I turned fifteen,” Annie says, “I felt more unhappy than I had ever imagined anyone could be” (85). She then goes on to describe it like this: “It must have come on me like mist: first, I was in just a little mist and could still see everything around me, though not so clearly; then I was completely covered up and could not see even my own hand stretched out in front of me” (86). A bit later, she talks about the strangeness of her own reflection in shop windows, amidst all the ordinary things: “I saw myself just hanging there among bolts of cloth, among Sunday hats and shoes, among men’s and women’s undergarments, among pots and pans, among brooms and household soap, among notebooks and pens and ink, among medicines for curing headache and medicines for curing colds” (94). The final chapter, which takes place on Annie’s last day in Antigua, is also really great: I love the way that Annie narrates all the little childhood moments and incidents she remembers as she walks from her home to the jetty from which she’ll board a launch that will take her to a ship that will take her away from everything she’s known up until now.

Because Internet is an excellent exploration of how people use language in online interactions, and how the conventions of online language and online social interaction more generally have shifted and are continuing to shift with time. It’s smart and funny and the kind of book where I kept pausing to tell my boyfriend things I’d just read; it prompted me to think of my own internet interactions over the years, and prompted me to ask him about his. (I am way more of an “internet person” than he is, which we both already knew, but it was interesting to talk about what we each remember about early online interactions.) It was interesting to think about the fact that people born in an era of widespread internet use won’t necessarily remember the first times they “went online”, any more than I remember the first time I watched television or used a telephone: TV and phones were always there for me, and the internet will have always been there for younger people. I may not remember the literal first time I went online, but I remember my early internet experiences as something totally new and different: I remember talking in chat rooms and message boards on Prodigy and then on AOL, from what must have been 6th grade onwards (I say this because I remember having a chat room name that referenced the names of my classroom guinea pigs).

As someone who was “interacting with strangers” in my first online forays, whether via chat or email or AOL message boards (in high school I had internet-friends via a Seventeen magazine message board called “Whims of Fashion”, which later migrated to Livejournal) I fit into the cohort that McCulloch refers to as “Old Internet People”, though I’m not part of the early section of that cohort (Usenet users and people who were on university networks before Compuserve and Prodigy and AOL took things more mainstream). At the same time I have overlap with the cohort McCulloch refers to as “Full Internet People”, who “began by using it to communicate more with people they already know” – like AOL Instant Messenger conversations with people from school. McCulloch uses these cohorts (there are also “Semi Internet People”, “Post Internet People”, and “Pre Internet People”) to discuss different communication patterns and assumptions. There’s lots of interesting stuff here, especially when McCulloch talks about “Post Internet People” who joined “the social internet after their parents were already there” and had to figure out how to deal with “context collapse” – which is “danah boyd’s term for when people from all your overlapping friend groups see all your shared posts from different aspects of your life.”

McCulloch explores various areas of online communication, including how new words or phrases spread online, how people use emoji (and the history of emoji, kaomoji, and emoticons), “typographical tone of voice”, memes, Facebook “status updates”, and email greetings and closings (including a generational divide between people who start work emails with “Dear” and people who feel that has weird connotations of intimacy). Throughout, she quotes academic research and popular sources while also drawing on her own experiences with being an “internet person,” and the result is really engaging.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

February 18th, 2021

Wallace, the protagonist of Real Life, is in a graduate program in biochemistry in an unnamed Midwestern city (it’s Madison). When the book opens, his father has been “dead for several weeks” but that isn’t his main concern: he’s just found that the lab experiment he’s been doing all summer is probably ruined, and he doesn’t think it’s an accident, though he can’t be sure. He meets his friends by the lake to hang out and take his mind off things, though he feels like he’s always “stuck on the edges” of his friend-group. The novel follows Wallace through the weekend, though we also get glimpses of his past—different events and conversations make him think of his childhood in Alabama, his parents and grandparents, and various moments of hurt and trauma. Science, and this grad program, were meant to be the place he would fit in, in addition to being a way for him to escape the South; his friends and lab-mates are meant to be his people. But he’s the only Black person in his cohort and his friend-group, and the racism of the white people around him (whether it’s pointed or unthinking) is yet another thing he has to deal with, mostly on his own. (He does have a Chinese American friend who’s in the same lab as him, but other than her, everyone he works with or is friends with is white.)

Much of the book ends up focusing on Wallace’s interactions with Miller, a guy he’s friends with but has also always had tension with: at a departmental party, Wallace made a crack about Miller’s outfit being an example of the “Greater Midwestern Trailer Park” look; Miller said something to Wallace, months later, in which he joked about “your people.” And then: “they fell into that chilly silence that comes between two people who ought to be close but who are not because of some early, critical miscalculation.” Miller and Wallace’s relationship shifts, over the course of the book, after they hook up (which comes as a surprise to both of them; Miller makes a point of saying he’s “not into guys”), though it remains antagonistic at moments, sometimes intensely so.

Meanwhile, Wallace is also trying to figure out if he should stay in the grad program or leave: he’s unhappy, but so is everyone around him, at least sometimes. How much of his unhappiness is just because grad school can be rough and science can be a slog? How much is due to other people’s racism and how it affects his daily life? Would he be happier doing something else? What does he actually want? As Wallace is navigating his own unhappiness, his friends are navigating theirs, too, whether in the form of relationship woes or guilt over past actions—but because the narration is focused on Wallace, we see more of his struggles, some of which his friends will never have to deal with because they’re white. Wallace thinks, for example, about how he tried to talk to the head of his lab, Simone, about how someone else in the lab “talks to him as though he’s inept.” “It isn’t racism,” Simone says, as if it can’t be. But as Wallace puts it to himself, “white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects”—when someone says something racist at a dinner party, and his friends don’t speak up, they can eventually forget about it: “this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened.”

I like that Real Life takes place over the course of a weekend: lots of things can happen over the course of a weekend, but not a lot necessarily gets resolved. And I like Taylor’s prose, which is writerly in a way that works for me, as in sentences like this: “The soccer boys had started shoving each other, the white of the shirts glowing, so many bright rectangles falling across each other like in a postwar painting.” This isn’t a light read, but it’s an engaging one.

Greenglass House is a really charming middle-grade mystery that I’m glad to have read in winter: there are so many mentions of snow and ice and wind, and also of hot chocolate and indoor coziness, and it was satisfying to read all that wintry prose while curled up on the couch with my own mug of hot chocolate. At the start of the book, it’s just before Christmas, and Milo, who’s twelve, is ready for his usual winter break from school. His parents run a “smugglers’ hotel” called Greenglass House that’s usually empty at Christmastime. But the year in which the story takes place turns out to be anything but usual, and while Milo is initially annoyed to have his winter routines interrupted, he ends up making friends and solving mysteries and enjoying himself more than he would have thought possible.

I like Milford’s writing a lot, and I like her world-building. The world of this story isn’t ours, not exactly, but the differences are revealed gradually, in a way that I think works. Greenglass House, which is described as “a huge, ramshackle manor house that looked as if it had been cobbled together from discarded pieces of a dozen mismatched mansions collected from a dozen different cities,” sits high above Nagspeake, which has evocatively-named neighborhoods like the “Printer’s Quarter” and the “Quayside Harbors”, and bodies of water like the “Skidwrack River” and “Magothy Bay.” Nagspeake also, apparently, has a mail-order company that “would practically have a monopoly on goods coming into the city,” if it weren’t for those smugglers. Greenglass House is described as having a historic connection to smuggling, as well as a current one: its previous owner was a famed smuggler known as Doc Holystone, who’s still something of a folk hero even three decades after his death.

I also like the way that Milford works stories and storytelling into her narrative. Partly this is done through stories within the story: Milo ends up reading a book of folklore where the framing device is that people trapped in an inn due to floods tell stories to pass the time, and when Greenglass House’s guests are similarly trapped by snow and ice, he suggests they do some story-telling of their own. So we get bits of the stories Milo is reading, and we get the stories told by the guests. And we also get some storytelling-adjacent stuff in the form of a role-playing game that one of Milo’s new friends suggests they try as a way to solve the various mysteries that pop up: Milo’s never played any RPGs before, but as his new friend explains how he can develop a character and make choices about that character, he gets into it and starts to see how seeing things through the lens of the game (and the character he’s created) can change what he notices/pays attention to. The book also features family stories and family histories, which take on a particularly poignant feeling for Milo, who’s adopted and doesn’t know anything about his birth parents.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this book, that’s because there is: I didn’t even mention the stained glass, or the pair of rival thieves, or the mystery of the word “Lansdegown”. But to me, all the things going on felt interesting and balanced, not like too much. And now I’m looking forward to reading Milford’s other books set in this world!

Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma

January 26th, 2021

I don’t remember when, where, or why I acquired a copy of this book, but I decided it might be interesting to read after having read A Tale for the Time Being earlier this month, since that novel and this book cover some of the same years in Japan’s history. I did recognize some of the things mentioned in Buruma’s book from Ozeki’s novel (including the “I-novels” of the Taishō period), and those moments of recognition were satisfying. Overall, though, I’m probably not the ideal reader for this book. I found Buruma’s style engaging and readable, but Inventing Japan focuses on military and political history, which is not my favorite kind of history to read. Buruma covers almost a century in less than 165 pages, so some of the reading experience just felt like mentions of people and events flying by. It was interesting to read, near the start of the book, about how in the 1850s early Japanese nationalists made use of some Western ideas as a way to “emancipate Japan from the Chinese cultural orbit” (12), and about how those opposed to the shogunate began “to politicize the imperial institution” (19), and to read, as the book continued, about where those things ended up leading.

I got this book from the library because the New Yorker described it as an “extraordinary début novel” that “records a young woman’s thoughts as she moves through a single day,” and further said this: “By arranging text in unconventional ways, Watson conveys the shapes and the rhythms of thought, and coheres scraps of consciousness into clear moments of impression, observation, and anxiety.” This is true, but doesn’t give a full sense of just how much anxiety there is in this short book, and doesn’t touch on why. Reading this book, you’re really in the narrator’s head, which turns out to be an uncomfortable place to be. I think the level of discomfort I felt means that the book it’s successful at what it’s trying to do, and I’m glad I read it. That said—

… and you should stop reading now if you don’t want to know about something that isn’t revealed in its entirety immediately—I do wish I’d known going into it that the narrator’s boss raped her, and that the narrator’s attempts to deal with the trauma of that rape (as well as the trauma of workplace sexual harassment more generally) are a major part of the story.

I do like the form of this book, the way it proceeds through a single day from when the narrator wakes to when she falls asleep—the way we see her commute, her workday, all the little moments and thoughts and actions. I like the way the simultaneity of experience is captured—how when the narrator is reading a book on the train on her way to work, we get a snippet of what she’s reading, and her thoughts on it, and the distractions making their way into her experience of reading—the announcement of the next stop on the train, or how she finds herself thinking about sex with her boyfriend. I like the narrator’s walk from the train to work—how she passes a “PRET,” then a “SECOND PRET” then “ANOTHER PRET” within the course of a few pages (30-32). I like how the start of her workday is captured: an awkward exchange with a colleague about tea, then: “google chrome, double click” then “outlook, double click” (40). I like how as the workday progresses we get snippets of email subject lines and Twitter threads and a TripAdvisor review; I like how the text captures the way the narrator switches from one task to the next, and how she watches the minutes pass as it gets closer and closer to 6 pm. And I like the back and forth between the narrator and her boyfriend, in a pub after work, after they’ve ducked out of a poetry reading—the way the narrative captures the sweetness and connection between them, even as it also captures the way that the narrator is keeping this huge secret from him and fretting about if and when and how she’s going to tell it. “I cannot get through the day, if everything brings up something else,” she thinks, at one point, earlier (103). Everything does bring up something else, though, and she gets through the day regardless.