November 8th, 2016
I’ve been quiet for the last, um, month, but it’s not that I haven’t been reading. It’s that I’ve been (re)reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which has been totally excellent, but wow it’s a long book. I first read it in July 2005, and remember being delighted to be immersed in its world. More recently, my boyfriend and I watched and liked the BBC miniseries based on the book, which made us decide it was maybe time for a re-read. (He’d read it multiple times already: it’s basically his favorite book. I got him this t-shirt for his birthday last year and it was maybe the best present idea I’ve ever had.) So: I spent October and the first week of November delightedly, again, immersed in the world of this book, which is England in the early 1800s, but with magic. What magic is/means/does changes for the characters over the course of the book, though: at the start, magicians are basically all theoretical magicians/historians of magic: there hasn’t been a real practical magician in England in centuries, since John Uskglass, magician-king of the North, left and apparently took magic with him. But actually there is one practical magician, Gilbert Norrell, and then, after a while, there is another, Jonathan Strange.
There is way too much going on in this book for me to try to summarize it all: magic and a fairy and the Napoleonic wars and a prophecy and Venice and enchantments and oh, I almost forgot to mention, excellent/hilarious footnotes that sometimes take up multiple pages. Also, I love some of the descriptions in this book so much. Like this:
After two hours it stopped raining and in the same moment the spell broke, which Perroquet and the Admiral and Captain Jumeau knew by a curious twist of their senses, as if they had tasted a string quartet, or been, for a moment, deafened by the sight of the colour blue. (133)
Or this: “She wore a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets. He was surprized to find himself addressed by her since he was quite certain that he had not spoken his thoughts out loud. (191)
September 27th, 2016
This book, which is subtitled “A Search for the Spirit of Place,” is part memoir/travel writing, part history, and overall pretty pleasing. In Chapter 2, Marsden and his wife and kids move from a seaside house in Cornwall to farmhouse by a creek, farther inland, and the house and the land around it, combined with his memories of childhood explorations of the landscape around his parents’ house, prompt Marsden to think about and write about Cornwall and the landscape and its history, particularly in terms of it being a ritual landscape, a place of standing stones and barrows and graves. (A cave he visited in childhood, he learns in adulthood, has been identified as the oldest known burial place in Britain.) Each chapter is preceded by a black & white image, many of which are photos Marsden took, and each chapter is about a specific place (mostly in Cornwall but not entirely).
I picked this book up partly because the blurb says that Marsden decided to walk across Cornwall to Land’s End, and he did, but I was imagining it as a single trip, which this isn’t: it’s a number of different excursions, punctuated by side trips or work on the farmhouse or its land. Which is fine, but it’s a different kind of narrative than I was expecting. I like the details about the farmhouse, though, which needs some work:
I did nothing about the wisteria shoots that grew through the window of our bedroom, pushing towards the furniture with their slender fingers. A tiny bramble – thorns still pliable, leaves innocent green – had sprouted from a crack in the sitting-room wall, and although a good part of my day was spent cutting back its cousins, this one had a rarity that made me treasure it. (45)
On the page after that, Marsden writes about finding a pheasant in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and then finding one of her eggs amidst the bedsheets. And later, there’s this:
There wasn’t much snow, but when it did come, light and dry one dusk after everyone had left, it blew through the kitchen door where I was standing waist deep in a pit. I watched the flakes drift down like feathers, to rest on the bare earth, on the muddy toe of my boots – unmelting. In that moment I found it hard to imagine the house ever being habitable again (68).
The parts about ritual landscape were interesting, too, about how ritual landscapes react to or frame elements of the view, and I liked the parts about Marsden’s visits to Glastonbury and Tintagel and the clay-producing area around Hensbarrow, and his visits to the Scilly Isles (which used to be one island—he write about snorkeling in water and knowing the bottom beneath him used to be dry land) and Land’s End.
September 20th, 2016
As I make my way through Luke Pearson’s “Hilda” graphic novels for kids, I find myself liking each one more than the last. The art is consistently excellent—I like the colors, the clean lines, and how it rewards attention to detail—and the stories keep getting better. This one opens with a scene from Hilda’s life in the country, where she used to wander on her own to the edge of the forest to draw, and her mom was fine with it. Now, Hilda and her mom have just moved to the city of Trolberg, and Hilda’s planning some solo exploration of their neighborhood, but her mom doesn’t think it’s safe. She wants Hilda to stay inside for the day, but promises they can go out together to the town’s annual Bird Parade that night. Some kids from Hilda’s school show up, though, and her mom lets her go out with them. But rather than drawing or reading or even playing at the playground, these kids amuse themselves by pulling pranks on strangers and throwing rocks at birds: Hilda, who is kind and has a rapport with all kinds of creatures, is clearly horrified. When one of the kids actually hits a bird with a rock, Hilda rushes to help it, and her interactions with the bird lead to further wanderings, and to the kind of adventure she maybe didn’t think was possible in the city.
I love the below, in which Hilda’s explaining to the bird that she didn’t think she liked the city at first, but now she thinks she might:
September 19th, 2016
At the start of Anastasia Has the Answers, we learn that Anastasia (who is 13 now) has decided she wants to be a journalist, which helps to give a pleasing structure to the book. She’s learned that journalists should think about the “Who, what, when, where, and why” of the situation behind the piece they’re writing, and should answer those questions near the beginning: each chapter ends with an excerpt from Anastasia’s notebook in which she puts a journalistic spin on whatever’s been going on, and we get to see her crossed-out initial drafts as well as her final result.
As with some of the other books in this series, some of the plot/conflict centers around some ill-fated plan that Anastasia comes up with—though I was pleased that the plans in this book were less stressful than in some of the others. First: Anastasia’s Uncle George, whose wife has just died suddenly, comes to visit from LA, and Anastasia decides she should try to set him up with someone, maybe her friend Daphne’s mom (Daphne’s parents are getting divorced). Meanwhile, Anastasia has been struggling to learn to climb a rope in gym class, and decides she wants to teach herself how and unveil her newfound skill at a demonstration her class will give to a team of visiting foreign educators. The first plan is not such a great idea, but Anastasia doesn’t push it too hard: she’s busier with the second plan, especially because she totally has a crush on her (female) gym teacher and wants to impress her.
This was a fun and quick Sunday read for me, and I look forward to picking up the next one in the series at some point.
September 16th, 2016
In February 2011, Lucy Knisley (who was 27 at the time) went on a Caribbean cruise with her grandparents (who were 91 and 93), and this graphic-memoir tells the story of that trip. It’s the fourth book I’ve read by Knisley and not my favorite (that would be either Relish or An Age of License), but I like graphic-memoirs in general and I also like Knisley’s art a whole lot.
So, right: at the start of the book, Lucy’s grandparents sign up to go on a cruise with a group of other seniors who live in the same assisted-living facility. But they don’t really know anyone else in the group, and their kids (including Lucy’s dad) worry about whether they’re really up for a cruise. The solution ends up being for Lucy to go along: it’s not a vacation she would choose to take (or would get to take) by herself, but she can help out her grandparents and also have a tropical escape from a New York City winter.
As expected, the cruise is not necessarily an easy or relaxing trip. Knisley’s grandmother has dementia and has moments where she can’t remember where they are or why, which is upsetting to everyone involved, and Knisley has to help with everything from laundry to medications, as well as planning daily activities. She wants her grandparents to enjoy the cruise and experience the ship’s various offerings, but she also doesn’t want to drag them to things they aren’t interested in—but without her prodding, they wouldn’t go to anything. It’s a big contrast to Knisley’s last trip, which was all youth and freedom and self-directed experiences. But Knisley is glad to be spending time with her grandparents, and there are moments of sweetness—a conversation with her grandfather, or the discovery that her grandmother unexpectedly loves being in a warm shallow swimming pool.
I like that the book includes snippets of Knisley’s reading material before and during the cruise—we learn that she read David Foster Wallace’s essay about a cruise (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) before her departure, and then on the cruise itself she’s re-reading her grandfather’s WWII memoir (the book features some great illustrations of scenes from it, including a swimming pool filled with corn flakes on a troop ship that was a converted ocean liner) and she also reads The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan (aww).
September 13th, 2016
At the start of this novel we meet Karl, who’s a 40-year-old single dude who owns a bar in Chicago. He used to be the guitarist for an indie rock band that was kind of big in the late ’90s, but now he just has his bar, and his best guy friend, Wayne. Until he accidentally discovers he also, apparently, has a wormhole in his apartment: he’s searching for one of his boots in his closet one day and suddenly finds himself sucked through the floor and then in the past, a few months back. He lands at a nearby rock club, at a show he’d actually seen, and then finds himself back in the present. He tells Wayne, who writes a program that lets them send themselves/other people to specific places/times in the past, and they launch a business in which they send people back to see particular bands/shows/performances, by request. But then Wayne wants to go to 1980 and prevent John Lennon from being killed, which Karl is not OK with: fucking with the past seems like a bad idea and a slippery slope. Heated words are exchanged, but Karl agrees to send Wayne back—but then accidentally sends him to 980, rather than 1980.
The rules around time travel in this book felt like a lot of hand-waving, which kind of bugged me at first, but eventually I was OK with just suspending disbelief (Wayne can send texts and emails from the past? Yeah, OK. I actually think there might sort of be an explanation for this at the end of the book, but in the midst of things it felt a bit weird.)
So anyway: Wayne is in 980, and Karl doesn’t know how to get him back, because the normal procedure relies on ambient electricity in the past from which the person is traveling. Wayne tells him to find an expert, which leads Karl to meet Lena, who’s in the PhD program for astrophysics at Northwestern. He tells her about the wormhole; she thinks he’s nuts; he shows her; they time travel together; they start dating. Together and separately, they travel into the past and/or future and try not to mess things up too badly. The book ends up being a time-travel story and a love story and a story about figuring out what you want, what you would keep the same about your life and what you would change if you could.
I wanted to like this book more than I did, which isn’t to say it was bad—and maybe part of my problem with it was a lack of momentum on my part (I started reading it on an airplane, then didn’t read at all over the course of a mini-vacation in Oregon, and then picked it up in earnest again after arriving home). I found the beginning fairly fun, the middle sort of slow-going, and the build-up to the end pretty great—which may have been as much about where I was, reading-wise, as about the book’s pacing, I don’t know.
September 5th, 2016
I’d been vaguely meaning to read The Portable Veblen for months, but I’d also been vaguely worried I wouldn’t like it—that it would be annoyingly trying-too-hard quirky rather than pleasingly quirky. I shouldn’t have worried, but also, I think I read this book at exactly the right time. After reading two non-fiction books in a row, I was ready for a fun and engrossing novel, and on a three-day-weekend with my boyfriend away at Burning Man and me at home in Brooklyn with the threat of a tropical storm looming, I wanted something that would keep me entertained if I ended up being stuck at home in days and days of rain. Well: post-tropical storm Hermine veered east and it didn’t rain at all here this weekend, but this book was still very good company. (And it was actually kind of great to read right after Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love, which had things to say about dating and consumer culture, since that’s a point of tension in this book.)
So, right: at the start of the book, 30-year-old Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and 34-year-old Paul Vreeland get engaged, though they haven’t been dating that long. We get the story of their meeting (at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he was a neurologist doing research on traumatic brain injuries and she’s an office assistant) and bits of their shared present and their separate pasts. Veblen talks to squirrels; there’s apparently one living in her attic, which doesn’t bother her, but definitely bothers Paul, who’s kept up at night by the racket it makes and comes home one day with a humane trap for it. We learn about Veblen’s difficult mother and Paul’s mentally-disabled brother and how Paul was lured away from Stanford by the heiress of a giant pharmaceutical company who’s interested in the new device he’s invented, which promises to revolutionize the treatment of brain injuries on the battlefield. We learn about points of tension between the otherwise happy couple: Veblen wants a wedding in the woods, while Paul was thinking they could take the pharmaceutical heiress up on her offer to let them get married at her estate; he gets her a huge flashy engagement ring that is not her style at all, and she doesn’t understand his desire for things like a big new house or a boat; they don’t particularly get along with each other’s best friends. But the biggest tensions end up coming from their families and their family histories: Veblen’s difficult mother is a hypochondriac whose neediness has shaped Veblen’s personality; Paul resents his hippie parents for being very present for his disabled brother and not so present for him, and craves mainstream success/normalcy in part as a reaction to their lifestyle.
Meanwhile, there are hijinks going on related to the pharma company and the clinical trial that Paul is running with them (sidenote: the company’s founder is named Boris; his daughter is Cloris; her son is Morris: if that doesn’t make you giggle, you might not like this book), and various unexpected plot developments make Paul and Veblen each doubt whether they should get married after all. The last hundred pages or so of the book feel like a screwball comedy in a very good way, and I was alternately laughing and cringing and totally unable to put the book down. I saw a negative review on Goodreads that compared this to Where’d You Go, Bernadette—the reviewer making the comparison didn’t like that book or this one. I also felt there were similarities, but I loved them both.
September 3rd, 2016
In Labor of Love (subtitle: The Invention of Dating), Moira Weigel explores current and past states of dating in the US, from the turn of the 20th century onward. She does so in ten chapters, each with a snappy one-word title like “Plans” or “Likes,” plus an introduction and an afterword. The book is organized sort of chronologically, sort of thematically, which sometimes works and sometimes leads to moments of repetition. Dating, Weigel explains, was preceded by “calling,” which a) was supervised and b) took place in the home. But in the late 1800s, a lot more working-class women started moving to cities looking for jobs, which led to single men and single women coming into contact with each other in more ways/in greater numbers, which then led to new ways of interacting and finding love/sex/romance.
Throughout the book, one of Weigel’s main points is that the way we date, and the way we talk about dating, is heavily influenced by the economic reality and mood of the moment. In the early 1900s, working-class women who were getting treated by men to days at amusement parks couldn’t necessarily have afforded that kind of leisure activity on their own. In the 1950s, as the post-war economy boomed, teenagers could afford to take dates out for sodas and milkshakes. Throughout the 20th century, consumerism and dating have intertwined: shopgirls made the things they sold appealing but also made themselves appealing, sometimes in hopes of landing a wealthy husband; a culture of consumer choice and abundance where people are used to buying something, using it until they’re tired of it, and then buying something new has overlap with serial monogamy.
Another main point is that wow, gender inequality sucks, and the ways in which (straight) women are sold certain ideas/ideals about dating are pretty terrible. The ideas and ideals may change over time, but they continue to perpetuate inequality, and hm, maybe we as a society should do something about that. (Side note: there is a lot about straight white middle-class monogamous dating in this book, but Weigel does a good job of recognizing that not everyone is straight, white, middle-class, or monogamous, and there were several moments where I found myself particularly appreciating her writing for not being heteronormative.)
Amidst the serious historical and economic arguments, there are a lot of fun/funny/interesting anecdotes. The list of interests from Martha Stewart’s match.com profile (wait, what?!) is great, as is a story about someone going on a date with Rick Moranis thanks to OKCupid. A short section about websites that facilitate “sugar dating” was super-interesting. In a section of the book about hookup culture/dating in college and high school, this made me laugh:
My grandfather, who was a young dater in the 1930s, recalls a schoolteacher admonishing him and his classmates that if they let girls sit in their laps while “joyriding,” they had to be sure “to keep at least a magazine between them.” (78)
I picked up this book thanks to this also very interesting New Yorker article, and I’m glad I did.
August 24th, 2016
The 55 essays that follow this book’s preface are divided into three sections, “Reading Things,” “Seeing Things,” and “Being There” (plus an epilogue). The essays in the first section are literary criticism, mostly; the essays in the second section are about art (mostly, but not only, photography); the essays in the last section are sometimes travel essays and sometimes other kinds of essays about places/being in the world. I found myself pleased by this book right from the prologue: I like that Teju Cole is apparently someone who tries out pens in shops often enough to have something he always writes when doing so, and also that the thing he writes when doing so is a snippet of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. There are things about Cole’s sensibility that make me nod with recognition: he likes poems by Tomas Tranströmer and essays by André Aciman, and it seems like he likes them for some of the same reasons that I also like those things. (It was a pleasure to read Cole’s essay about Aciman’s Alibis, and to remember my own reading of Alibis, where I was when I read it and how the prose made me pause and grin.) I like how Cole is drawn to moments of/the idea of epiphany. I like sentences like this, from “Black Body”: “The music you travel with helps you to create your own internal weather” (7).
In the section of the book about art, highlights for me included a piece about 20th-century West African photographic portraiture by Malick Sidibé and others, and a piece about Roy DeCarava’s photos and photographing black skin when film was calibrated based on white skin and a piece about Howard French’s Shanghai Photographs, and a piece about Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers project, and a really really great piece about Dina Kelberman’s I’m Google, which is such a cool project. I also love this list, from a piece about Saul Leiter: “He returned again and again to a small constellation of subjects: mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, reflection, blur, fog, rain, snow, doors, buses, cars, fedoras” (141). I appreciate that there are color inserts that show some of the artwork being discussed, including some of Cole’s own photographs (which are great, especially the one of the US/Mexico border in Sasabe).
The first piece in the last section of the book, “Far Away from Here,” is probably my favorite in this section: it’s about being in Switzerland and taking photos in the Alps and the history of Alpine tourism and travel/travel photos in general, and about homesickness and its opposite. You can read it online here, with more photos than in the book, and it’s excellent. I also really liked the piece about voting in the 2008 presidential election, and pieces about trips to Brazil and Rome and what Cole sees there, partly but not entirely focused on race/race relations/history, and the piece about another trip to Brazil in which Cole tries to find the spot from which René Burri’s “Men on a Rooftop” was taken.
In Kiss & Tell, after telling the story of her parents’ meeting, courtship, and marriage (her mom was 16 when they met; her dad was 25; they married when her mom was 19), MariNaomi recounts all of her romantic/sexual encounters from childhood to age 22—from the boy who kissed her on the cheek in kindergarten to a five-year-long relationship that lasted longer than it probably should have, with all the crushes and hook-ups in between. There are funny stories and awkward stories and stories that are kinda sad; there are drug-fuelled stories (including a really pleasing depiction of an acid trip) and alcohol-fuelled stories and threesome-stories. There are stories driven by wanting, and stories driven by being wanted, and stories about the kind of hook-ups that just kind of happen for lack of anything else more interesting.
I liked the longer pieces in the book most—like the one about a relationship with a model who was in trouble with the law for stealing car stereos, and several intertwining stories about that five-year-long relationship—but the whole thing was pretty pleasing.