March Update: I can’t believe I have to keep having this conversation…

I’m not quite sure what to write for a blog that’s mostly about what I am reading when I’m not really reading—or more specifically, I’m not really reading books. I’ve been reading the news a lot. Maybe even more than I should. I did manage to finish one syllabus book during the month of March,   I also picked up the second Neapolitan novel. I actively stopped reading Lab Girl by Hope Jahren about 40 pages in.

I did start, read, and complete The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina García, which does count towards the “living Central or South American Author” requirement since García is Cuban-American and alive. I didn’t take any notes while I read, so I’m working largely from memory here, but I want to give you a brief synopsis in place of an actual review. The novel is set at a hotel in the capital of an unnamed Central American country in the middle of an extended political upheaval. García’s narrative moves between the hotel’s residents and staff, including the novel’s titular matador, a Japanese-American woman named Suki, who eats pears before her matches and seems to choose her lovers based on their feet. While her story was interesting and the rest of the novel seems to wind around her story, I was more compelled by Aura, the ex-guerilla who works at the hotel and must serve the visiting military men, including the colonel who murdered her lover and brother.  At the beginning of the novel, Aura’s only apparent recourse is to spit in his pork chops but when she is alone, she is visited by the voice of her dead brother who urges her to avenge him and the rest of their village. Elsewhere, the novel is firmly rooted in realism and it’s not enough to say that because García is a Latin-American writer, her work is representative of magical realism*, but she plays with it in these scenes. Aura’s conversations with the brother are never couched in insanity. Neither she nor García questions her mental state when she goes to the roof of the hotel to listen to her dead brother’s voice (we’re never led to believe he appears to her physically) her to kill the colonel.  In fact, in that scene, she’s interrupted by a hotel guest who attempts to jump to his death. Aura stops him. Presented with this contrast, the audience can read her as stable and quick-thinking. It’s brilliant, really.

I was supposed to read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren for my book club but had to stop because I kept yelling at my Kindle and you’re not encouraged to do that on the bus. I don’t want to shit on a book when I barely made a dent in it before giving up. I really don’t want to shit on a female scientist’s memoir. But in about 30-50 pages, Jahren said more questionable shit than I could tolerate. Like this:

“I started out studying literature, but soon discovered that science was where I actually belonged. The contrast made it all the clearer: in science classes, we did things instead of just sitting around talking about things.”

She goes on:

“Science lectures dealt with social problems that still could be solved, not defunct political systems for which both the proponents and the opponents had died before my birth. Science didn’t talk about books that had been written to analyze other books that had originally been written as retellings of ancient books; it talked about what was happening now and of a future that might yet be.”

She returns to this riff a little later on:

I was reading a new biography of Jean Genet with whom I had been fascinated…To me, Genet was the perfect representation of an organic writer, one who wrote purely and didn’t labor to communicate, didn’t expect recognition, and when recognition came didn’t take it in. He was also untaught, which meant that his voice was absolutely original and not a subconscious imitation of hundreds of other books he’d read.”

I don’t know what to make of the person who wouldn’t just say this in passing but seems to think it enough that she wrote it down, kept it through (presumably multiple) revisions, and had it published with her name attached to it. I don’t want to dissect it, line-by-line, but fuck it, I’m gonna:

  1. Making a thing is a worthwhile pursuit, but so is talking to other people. Talking to other people about how they see the world is a way to think outside of your own head.
  2. Yes, sometimes scientists solve “social problems.” But it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of what we know about how the human body reacts to extreme temperatures we know because of Nazi experiments.
  3. Sunday morning I read an article in the Post by a political scientist using Thucydides to explain how the tension between the United States and China could end in a war. He was literally using an ancient thinker to explain a very real current problem. It’s not even a terribly unscientific approach, looking for patterns and connections between what has happened to theorize what may.
  4. Your own birth is a strange dividing line for determining what is and is not of value, regardless of your interests. It’s a bizarrely adolescent point-of-view. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a science lab, but they’re all still in agreement with regards to Darwin and Newton, right? Those men are very dead. I just want to make sure we’re all still cool with the theories of evolution and gravity.
  5. I am admittedly not that familiar with Genet so I have to speak a little generally here. There are plenty of writers who never attend a workshop or seminar, but that’s not her claim. Her claim is an impossibility. It takes a lot of work to make a line, a passage, or an entire book feel effortless. Toni Morrison has said that she re-writes each line in her novels 15 or so times. That’s the kind of work it takes. Jahren’s version of Genet reads less like a thoughtful writer than a conduit. To suggest otherwise is to pretend writing is not real work.
  6. There is no one who has read and written who does not imbue the latter with the former, whether consciously or not. I have no patience for someone so lacking in self-awareness that they’d make this claim in one chapter, immediately after deliberating inserting Charles Dickens quotes into the previous one.

In a way, I should thank Jahren for writing something I didn’t agonize over setting down. One unfortunate side effect of this project (really, the only one) is that I find myself straining to finish books that aren’t terribly interesting to me. No one is actually grading me. I’m not going to get in trouble, not even with myself. It was a relief to decide to pick something else up instead and not feel the least bit guilty about it.

Hopefully, I’ll find a STEM book that takes a more charitable view of the humanities**—a view more like that of my next door neighbor growing up. Melissa was a professor in the biology department at the local college. She’d retired to Oregon by the time I was leaving for college, but that didn’t stop her from writing:

“English is a good major. If you change your mind after a year or two, you will have a solid foundation for almost anything else. Of course, if you stay with English you will have an even better foundation. A good liberal arts education can’t be beat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Remember, you only have one mind; the more you enrich it when you are young, the more useful and satisfying life will be.”

In totally unrelated news, I also got a tattoo this month. That brings the grand total to three. It’s still healing and my mother doesn’t care for it, but I’m pretty happy:

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*Magical realism doesn’t only happen in Latin-America and it’s not just a thing lit students call fantasy novels to be hoity-toity. Ronald Dahl does it in Matilda. Hayao Miyazaki is a master of it. Magical realism differentiates itself from fantasy because magical realism always exists in our world, but it values mystery and the fantastical alongside reality. That’s not a perfect definition because, honestly, it’s a little murky, I’ll be honest.

**I would also settle for not mentioning them at all.

February Update: no new white dudes

Years ago, I remember a man telling me—this was a friend or acquaintance, I can’t remember who (and wouldn’t say if I could), but it was definitely a man— that someone couldn’t call themselves a fan of Kurt Vonnegut if their favorite Vonnegut novel was Slaughterhouse-Five. This is the sort of information women don’t volunteer to me about any author (or director or musician…) It seems I am not a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read other books by him, but Slaughterhouse-Five remains my favorite. Mother Night, though I’ve only read three other novels by him, would not make the top five. It’s not the novel’s fault, really. I should have known better than to read it right now.

I went to the library after work a couple of weeks about to rectify a particularly crappy Thursday. Someone had quoted the book earlier in the day talking about Internet trolls using racism or sexism to attack people: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The novel’s protagonist is a man by the name of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who is being tried as a Nazi war criminal for his propagandist radio programs. Campbell claims, though he cannot prove it until the novel’s end, that he was working for the U.S. the entire time. He used his radio show to send coded messages. Campbell maintains throughout his telling that his only real allegiance was to his wife, Helga and that he was never a political person…as if opposition to the aims of the Nazis can be called political.

As I read, news reports came in of bomb threats at Jewish community centers and schools around the country. Headstones in Jewish cemeteries were toppled in the middle of the night.  I had a hard time negotiating Vonnegut’s winking distance in light of this. There is a kind of book magic that happens when you pick up the book you urgently need to read in a particular moment. Everything clicks into place and you understand yourself or the world a little better. The opposite is also true. Maybe I’d like this book more Donald Trump had lost the election and Richard Spencer hadn’t set up shop so close to where I live.

This is all to say that I’m done forever with speculative Nazi fiction, whether it imagines the world if Hitler prevailed or tries to ferret out a “good German.” I’m not interested in softening Nazis. There is a book on my desk right now by Timothy Snyder called Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’ll read that. It feels necessary.

It feels equally urgent that I shift my reading life away from white dudes. I still have to read William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy this year. I’m pretty sure Timothy Snyder is a white dude too. There is a high likelihood that the book I read on Reconstruction will be by renowned white dude, Eric Foner. It’s also pretty hard to avoid white dudes when reading epic fantasy and pre-Soviet Russian literature. But that’s still less than 10 white dudes and last year I read around 75 books. I’ve read nine this year so far and Kurt Vonnegut has the distinction of being the only dude, white or otherwise on the list. I figure that’s not a bad start. I just don’t care about what white dudes have to tell me. I know I am supposed to qualify that statement and remind you all that I love specific white dudes. But they know I love them and this blog isn’t their blog. It’s my blog. I get to make blanket generalizations on my blog.

On Tuesday, book fairies (Amazon) left three new books on my door. I haven’t really started any of them yet, but two are very slim—single-sitting reads. I’m re-reading Beloved. I read it in high school and skimmed it for a project in college, but have not read it as an adult. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

Re-Reading The Handmaid’s Tale

When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale won both the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Margaret Atwood, the writer, has called the work “speculative” rather than traditional science fiction. It makes sense, there’s very little science in the book. That said, she’s also said in interviews that her guiding rule while writing the book was that everything had to have already taken place, no degredation was invented by Atwood. Everything in this novel is still happening.

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel, Luke is trying to reassure Offred (but that’s not her name yet) that he will take care of her now that the government has closed the bank accounts of all women. This is right after they enact a law barring women from working outside the home. Luke’s reassurances that she’s only lost a job and that she’ll be protected sound patronizing to Offred and the reader. He’s not angry enough in that moment. Their relationship changes there and the reader can never see them as partners again. Offred will never have partners again, not in any real way. She’ll walk with another handmaiden to and from the shops. She’ll be paired with a Commander to breed a child for him and his wife, but she will not be a part of that child’s raising She’ll be reunited once or twice with her best friend from before, Moira. She’ll even find compatriots of sorts in Ofglen and Nick. But she is, from this moment on, isolated.

Offred, not whoever she was before the architects of a violent coup that supplants the United States government with the Christofascist Republic of Gilead, is made through this repeated isolation. Her body made be made literally docile, she suspects, through forced drug use when she’s first sent to the Red Center after her capture at the Canadian border, that is only the most physically obvious preparation. In all aspects of her new life, she is meant to be and feel alone. Camaraderie is not encouraged at the Center, though the women find ways to talk. They learn to lip read. After however, they are placed in the homes of men high enough in the organizing structure of Gilead (which we never fully understand, as Offred herself would have no real understanding of this new system of government), they are fully isolated. Offred is regarded with suspicion by one of the residence’s Marthas (maids and cooks, unable to procreate but not classified as Unwomen. Marthas still have usable bodies for work inside Gilead.)  She’d met with controlled hostility by the Commander’s wife inside the home (a Phyllis Schafly-like character named Serena Joy, who Offred recognizes as an anti-feminist religious TV personality from the time before) and outright contempt by Econowives when she leaves the house for her daily shop run.  It is not an accidental byproduct of the new system of government, but its organizing structure. Women who are separate cannot resist the subjugation. The Republic of Gilead creates categories of female bodies based on their use value. The role of the handmaiden is to be raped until she bears a successful, preferably male, child. She’s moved from qualifying man to qualifying man (three times, we’re given to understand) in the hopes of bearing “fruit.” Offred specifically does not call the Ceremony rape:

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because that is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there is some, and this is what I chose.”

Offred needs to exist in a world where she has some choice in what she does, however false the choice. At the Center, the Aunts charged with re-training women into handmaids explain that before they had the freedom of, now they have freedom from. I suppose this is how Offred must be conditioned to feel. The reader knows better. In order to exist, Offred further isolates herself in this moment from the parts of her body that mark her as biologically female. The construction is entirely passive, removed by degrees from any activity on Offred’s part. In the Ceremony, The Commander’s wife sits behind Offed, who rests between the wife’s thighs. Offred is reduced to her reproductive organs. It is the only part of her the government is interested in.

It’s hard not to read (or re-read in my case) this novel as a dire warning. It isn’t just that the novel’s focus on a totalitarian government’s complete subjugation of women—reframing the role of women, not as people but as vessels (or hosts)—but also the government’s efforts to vilify Islam. The terroristic coup that precipitated the rise of Gilead is initially blamed on Islamic terrorists, as are later attacks during the nation’s founding. All of them, however, are carried out by the Sons of Jacob, a patriarchal, theocratic movement reacting against what it sees as the moral degradation of modern society. By suspending the U.S. Constitution, deporting people of color, referred to in news broadcasts as the “Children of Ham” (referring to Noah’s dark-skinned son), disallowing all second marriages, and severely delimiting the rights of women, the group is able to instill their own regime. These acts are all coordinated and should not be read as distinct.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale during the second Bush administration. I don’t remember if I was in high school or college at the time, but I barely called myself a feminist and, though I saw hints of the book in attempts to roll back the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, the novel was speculative. When I re-read this novel in grad school, we were in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign and the Republican candidates, including the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, were coming out in support of personhood amendments. An abortion bill signed into law earlier that year by Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, calculated the gestational age of a fetus from the first day of a woman’s previous menstrual cycle, rendering Arizona’s reproductively viable women pre-pregnant, rather than the binary pregnant or not pregnant. The presidential nominees were also campaigning on the need for immigration reforms that emphasized tighter border security. This year, I re-read the novel again a day or so after the Virginia house of delegates voted to defund Planned Parenthood and the Trump administration issued a disastrous Executive Order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations, while also attempting to prioritize Christian refugees over others. This is to say nothing of then-candidate Trump’s assertion on the campaign trail that women who seek abortions should be punished by the law. Not the men who get them pregnant.

These policies are coordinated and should not be read as distinct. This increasingly extreme conservative view of reproduction, generally characterized as a moral issue in political circles, is part of a larger nationalistic narrative and indicative of an underlying fear of globalization wherein the threat of the non-White, non-Christian non-American citizen must be met with more White, Christian, American bodies.  It’s part of a worldview that acts out nationalism on bodies, both the bodies it deems worthy or unworthy of citizenship and the reproductive bodies it charges with creating new Americans. When viewed this way, we see a different, possibly more frightening narrative take shape.

When I re-read the novel in 2012, a co-worker mentioned in passing that he didn’t care for it because he found Atwood to be “didactic.” He also mentioned in passing—about a decade into the War on Terror—that atheists were the most hated group in America. I don’t think I need to tell you that this man is both white and in a heterosexual relationship. I don’t need to, but I am making a point. In the novel, his body was not controlled. He would have been able to pass. Although, he was technically correct at the time (though no longer), that atheists were less popular than Muslims, that distaste is not marked by hate crimes, just eye-rolling at parties when they bring up Richard Dawkins again. He had to largely invent a means of oppression. He didn’t see it acted out on his body at borders or in state legislatures or airport security lines or calls made to his house of worship threatening to blow it up. Maybe it felt preachy to him because he recognized himself in Luke, stooping down to hush Offred when her job and economic independence were stripped from her, but before they took her name. He would want her to know that he’s just trying to be helpful, supportive. Offred—and maybe more importantly—the reader know better.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

Feminism is for Everybody

bell hooks defines feminism in the introduction of this work as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” It’s as succinct a definition as you are liable to find. As much as I love my tee shirt that reads “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” it does not encapsulate the project as well as hooks’s definition because the work of feminism doesn’t actually just involve women. The patriarchal power structures feminism seeks to undermine also affect men who do not perform their masculinity in the manner narrowly defined by a patriarchal society. Sexism exploits men as well…but that doesn’t work as well on a tee shirt.

hooks is clear that feminism will not work if feminists don’t interrogate race and class in power dynamics alongside gender. A person cannot consider herself a feminist if she is only interested in raising herself up. This is why claims on the right that women from Megyn Kelly to Margaret Thatcher present a version of feminism that ultimately misappropriates the term. Kelly and Thatcher both aligned themselves with patriarchal white supremacist* power structures in order to gain prominence.  She extends this intersection outside the United States to show how feminism must also be anti-colonialist. This is perhaps where hooks shines brightest.

When I mentioned starting Feminism is for Everybody at the end of January, I was only about 10 or 15 pages in. hooks’s writing style in the ensuing 110 pages leans away from the rigorously academic as she repeats the need for a broad feminist movement. She does this purposefully as she sees feminism in the moment she is writing, fully ensconced in academia (with all its attendant obtuseness and circular reasoning.) I wish she hadn’t positioned herself as outside the academy so thoroughly because she is not. bell hooks is a distinguished professor. I understand her concern that the constant dialogue within a university setting can start to feel bloodless and theoretical. That said, I wish she’d at least included footnotes. Instead, her work feels anecdotal. She refutes the claims of other feminists without citing them. hooks calls for a feminist movement that does not leave out non-academics and perhaps that’s why she’s presented this text in this way, but the work feels incomplete. Not the work hooks is calling on the rest of us to do, though it also still needs doing. hooks’s call to arms itself does not always feel fleshed out. When hooks asserts that some women rely on abortion as a form of birth control or that repeated dilations of the cervix cause serious health issues, I would like to know where she’s getting her information. She’s not a medical doctor and her readers have the right to know why she feels comfortable making this claim. Her writing on abortion feels moralistic and hand-wringing even as she asserts that it should be safe and legal. I would like to know what has formed this worldview. hooks does not offer me this. hooks never offers her readers footnotes because she wants to reach readers outside an academic setting. However, I fail to see how her informal style (wholly necessary for her project) would be hampered by an unobtrusive notes section.

Ultimately, this seemingly minor issue of notation and sourcing (when she is responding the theories of other feminists, I don’t need to suggest hooks’s ideas are not her own) undermines her thesis: we need a bottom to top approach to feminism. hooks calls for the distribution of picture books, movies, bumper stickers—anything and everything that would bring feminism to the masses. There’s room in there, somewhere, for the obscure academics, but hooks disregard for this academic formality seems dismissive of the work of other feminists. Their names aren’t worth mentioning, even in contrast. It’s odd. The book should function as an introduction, but without that exposition, it seems writing for folks already in the movement.

After some cursory Googling, I can’t find books writing in either anticipation or response to the recent Women’s March. She’s checked in a number of articles on the march, with good reason. I similarly couldn’t find an article or essay in which she responds to the uptick in feminism as a fashion statement. Even as she calls for this at the beginning of this book, she does not consider wearing a tee shirt to be feminism. Your tee shirt will not dismantle sexist oppression. Similarly, she wants to see feminism explored in popular music, but criticized Beyonce’s Lemonade earlier this year as being violent, hypersexualized and commodified. Considering that response to arguably the highest-profile feminist statement we’ve seen from a pop musician in the last decade, I’m not sure what hooks is holding out for. I don’t know what unproblematic feminist art looks like. I don’t know if I (or bell hooks) will ever see it.

This is starting to sound like I wish I hadn’t read this book. I am glad I read it. I don’t know if it is the primer it intends to be, but it is a worthwhile read.

Reading Syllabus note: I haven’t decided how much work I need to read by each author I list in order to consider their work read. bell hooks has written around 30 books so far. It’s wildly unrealistic to suggest that I am going to read all thirty this year.I think two to three books per author should be enough to give me a better sense of their work.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*hooks does not use “white supremacy” in the same way we see it in discussions of high-profiles members of the “alt-right” like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulous. These men have overtly declared their racist ideologies. When hooks uses the term, she’s typically referring to the way the vast majority of white people do not question the privilege whiteness affords them and do not to anything to dismantle the institutionalized racism that continues to marginalize people of color while still proclaiming that they are not racist. It’s not terribly difficult to be overtly not racist. It’s much harder to be anti-racist. That takes work.

January Update: Oh right, I have a reading syllabus

This month I didn’t read any books that fit any of the criteria below. I started to read Wicked, which is good (at least the 50 or so pages I’ve read are good) but couldn’t hold my interest for long stretches. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it, I just wasn’t reading it. Every time I picked it up, I felt like there was something else I was supposed to be reading.  I did finish three books, however, A Wrinkle in Time, Hope in the Dark, and Trainwreck. The first two deal, both literally and figuratively, with beating back the darkness. The last is a reminder of how little room to act out women are allowed in our society–as if I needed the reminder.

I missed A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid. I can’t remember a teacher assigning it or a friend reading it around me or a librarian recommending it. I wish they had. It would have come in handy before I had Harry Potter. Despite my upbringing, I was never a fan of the Narnia series so I can’t recall reading any books growing up of the plucky-young-kids-take-on-evil variety. Truth be told, by the time I really enjoyed reading as a preteen, I was more interested in the evil than I was the plucky kids. Maturity (what all of it I have) has made me sentimental. After last year’s election, book people I follow online recommending reading hopeful fantasy like Rowling and L’Engle. I started using my Audible credits to collect the Harry Potter series to listen to while driving or cooking dinner. Right now it’s more relaxing than NPR. NPR used to be what I listened to when panic attacks made listening to a lot of music hard (songs all start to sound like sirens. It’s a very The West Wing season 3 side effect of my anxiety and I don’t care for it.) It seems other people had the same idea since I had to wait a few weeks before I could pick up A Wrinkle In Time from the library.  I won’t go through the novel’s full plot, but in the novel’s climax Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe travel to the planet Camazotz with the help of their supernatural neighbors, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. They’re hoping to find their father, a research scientist working for the U.S. government. They do, but not before Charles Wallace falls under the thrall of the planet’s overseeing brain, IT. IT enforces total homogeneity on the dark planet. The children’s father is held captive there because he would not succumb to uniform thinking. Meg is ultimately able to rescue her little brother because she loves him. IT is not capable of love and Meg is able to use emotion to underline the brain’s control. It’s a good lesson for children—that difference is to be celebrated, not stamped out and that love unites us. It’s a good lesson for the U.S. right now. I’d say it’s a good lesson for the president, but he doesn’t  read and the Ava DuVernay-helmed adaptation isn’t slated for release until 2018.

The “dark” in Hope in the Dark is less literal than in the black cloud consuming planets in A Wrinkle in Time. Instead, it’s the Bush administration’s neoconservatism, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. But still, Solnit is able to find places for optimism. In particular, she points to the Zapatista’s anti-globalist guerrilla resistance to the implementation of NAFTA in Mexico. The Zapatistas did not rebel to overthrow the Mexican government per se, but instead to critique power dynamics. They advocated for indigenous and women’s rights at the same time. In the Zapatistas, Solnit sees a model of activism in praxis that “does not sacrifice or postpone one kind of justice for another.” Elsewhere, she highlights how the anti-proliferation movement of the 1980s eventually led to nuclear arms reductions but failed to see full disarmament because people when back out their lives. “It’s always too soon to go home,” she writes (and I would do well to remember when my voice starts to go a little hoarse and my feet hurt and I start to worry simultaneously about the sheer size of the assembled crowd and whether anyone is actually paying attention):

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

I got Hope in the Dark when Solnit made it available for free through its publisher, Haymarket Books, just after the election. I read it in short bursts, leaving it to set for weeks before actually finishing it. I lumbered through A Wrinkle in Time. By the time I got around to buying Trainwreck by Sady Doyle two days after the inauguration, I was ready to be angry again. If the book has a patron saint, it’s Britney Spears. Toward the end of the book, Doyle notes that hers and any other book on celebrity meltdowns are now haunted by Britney, even though she has survived (however scathed.) Doyle’s premise is fairly straightforward: we expect female silence. Female abundance—sexuality, ambition, advocacy, addiction, displays of anything but the blandest emotional compliance— is met with harsh and continual critique. Even fictional women are ostracized when they can’t quiet down–the same abundance of emotion that makes Meg Murry her brother’s rescuer alienates her from most of her classmates and marks her as a problem student.

Doyle touches on the lives of everyone from Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Plath to Valerie Solanas, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky (The last two being held up as reliefs of the other—the overly sexed and the sexless.) While I was reading, it came out that Trump’s team in the White House have been using private email addresses for official business. The outrage from the campaign’s “but her emails!” crowd was predictably nonexistent. The dig against Clinton, for a lot of folks at least, is her inability to fit a collective gendered notion of ambition and leadership. Her loss will be* our collective loss too.

Thursday morning, I started the syllabus in earnest with bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody. I’ve read essays and excerpts from hooks over the years, but never her book-length work. She is an uncompromising scholar and activist. Her writing style is purposefully undemanding—she repeatedly expresses the concern that feminist theory has requested itself in academia, making it inaccessible for the people who need it most—but that ease belies an undergirding rigor. bell does not come to play, ever.  That does not mean it’s not possibly to disagree with her. Her suggestion that we do not yet understand the long-term effects of abortion seems to go against the opinion of medical doctors who understand the long-term effects and potential risk associated with abortion pales in comparison to the risks of pregnancy. More on that when I actually finish the book.

In thinking about this list after a month, I wonder if it might need reworking. Part of my reaction to this presidency has been to commit myself to small, daily resistances. Twice now, that’s meant leaving my house and standing outside in D.C. to physically protest his ideology and policies (once at the Women’s March and once in front of the White House after he issued the executive order banning immigration from seven-majority Muslin countries.) Once, it’s meant attending a town hall meeting held by my congressman. I’ve been setting aside a little money here and there for organizations like Earthjustice, the SPLC, and CAIR in addition to my monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Most days, it’s just calling my representatives at the state and federal level about upcoming legislation, etc. But it’s also less obvious (or more frivolous.) I’ve bought A LOT of books this year and this year is only a month so far. In addition to a small-scale spree at a nearby used bookstore a couple days into 2017, I’ve bought ten new books. That’s a lot, even for me. Most of them are conspicuously opposed to a Trumpian worldview. They are foregrounding the lived experience of people of color or women (or both). One is Mexican novel in translation. Two are written by John Lewis. One warns that humanity is still susceptible to the ideologies and impulses that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Two are about difficult women. One was literally written in response to Trump’s election. Are three Russian novels from different eras as necessary to the work that needs doing as reading my way through the Middle East? Do I have the time for long-winded world building in a fantasy novel, when everything feels so urgent? How many William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy novels do I need to read to get a sense of the two men? I’m not sure. Reading has always felt at least a little political to me, even when the reading itself is largely apolitical. But during this administration, it feels like an insurgent act. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks:
      • Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*Will be? Who am I kidding, it already is.

2017 Reading Syllabus

In 2016, I read 76 books (24 more than 2015; 46 more than 2014):

  • 41 were romances
  • 4 were YA
  • 7 were literary fiction (whatever that is)
  • 1 was philosophy
  • 2 were on writing
  • 3 were horror
  • 1 was a book of poetry
  • 2 were scientific, one of those was about moss.
  • 5 were science fiction or fantasy.
  • 5 were memoir or biography
  • 5 were history
  • 2 were on feminism

(Don’t bother checking my math. A couple books fell into more than one category and I counted them in both)

Those 76 books were written by 46 authors:

  • 33 of them were women
  • 12 were people of color

Top 5 (in no particular order):

  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • Gilead by Marianne Robinson/The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Honestly, this isn’t bad. It’s not great either. It’s a good reminder why I made the syllabus in 2015 and why I am bringing it back this year. I could have happily spent 2016 chasing bluestocking heroines and besotted rakes through London’s toniest ballrooms (and it seems I spent a lot of it doing just that), but I would have missed out on some seriously great writing (before any of you suggest otherwise, I would have missed out on great writing if I’d avoided the ballrooms altogether.)  Only a handful of the books I read this year were challenging. And while the gender breakdown was overwhelmingly female, the books I read were pretty white. I can do better. I can always do better.

With that in mind, I present the 2017 Reading Syllabus. 2015 focused on diversifying my reading. 2017 doesn’t necessarily to that in obvious ways, though it certainly allows for it in a lot of the categories and it fills in a couple gaps. Instead, this year I want to read as a means of undersimg_4478tanding and resistance. There are items on the list, like Wicked or One Hundred Years of Solitude that are just there because it’s high time I read them (Wicked is Zac’s favorite book and it’s silly how long I have put off reading it.) But there are others  that are there as a means of reminding me of what is at stake right now (the Authors category is entirely female; Regions will have me read all non-white authors). Reading is a political act and much as it is a personal pastime. When I am devoting a lot of my energy outside of work to remaining obviously busy by giving myself a relentless to-do list, I have to remind myself that we make time for things that are important and vacuuming the apartment every week isn’t as important as cultivating an inner life. I also have to remind myself of the needlepoint my mother had hanging in the kitchen growing up that read “A clean house is a sign of a misspent life.” It was hanging from a red ribbon strung up at the center of a curtain rod. The rod, the curtains, the ribbon, and the needlepoint were almost unforgivable dusty as if to drive the point home for anyone visiting our cluttered house. We make time for the things that are important. This is important to me.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African author
    • Living Central or South American author
    • Living Middle Eastern author
    • Living Asian author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

If you have suggestions that you think might fit into any of these categories, send them my way.