In 2014 I Want To...

... read Tolstoy and Chekhov

O from Behold the Stars is hosting a Russian Literature Challenge. I will participate, but I'm not yet sure how many books I will read or what those books will be. I only know that I want to read Tolstoy and Chekhov. I will definitely read War and Peace next year (famous last words) and I thought I could perhaps try to read all of Tolstoy's major works. The last piece I read by him, years ago, was The Kreutzer Sonata. To say I hated it at the time would be an understatement - I despised it as I rarely despised anything in my life and it colored my view of its author ever since. It's time to read more and make up my mind. So 2014 might be the year I decide if I hate Tolstoy or not. Ah, the suspenseful life I lead.

As for Chekhov, all I know of him through cultural osmosis make him sound like someone whose works I'd enjoy reading. I confess part of it is that I've been a little obsessed with this beautiful passage from Katherine Mansfield's journal for a while now and it made me crave to read Chekhov.

“Ach, Tchekov! Why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you in a big darkish room at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one.” 

... read Henry James 

Remember that time when I thought reading the complete works of Henry James will make all of my problems magically go away? I have decided that the only flaw in that plan was my lack of follow-through, so I will be returning to my Know Your James project in 2014. I also plan to read Leon Edel's five-volume biography of HJ. It is the best thing I bought this year and so far I've only read half of the first volume, because I'm awful.

The books ❤

... read Ursula K. Le Guin 

My general policy in life is to follow book recommendations from Emily. It's a good policy, I'm happy with it. It made me read Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Michal Ajvaz and my first book from Ursula K. Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven (which I will review at some point in January). And since I liked The Lathe of Heaven quite a lot, my New Year's resolution is naturally to.... 

Read ALL the Le Guins!

...or at least as many of them as I can manage in a year. If you have any favorites, feel free to share them in the comments so that I know what to read first. (I don't think I'll be reading her backlist in chronological order. It seems a bit much to be doing that for two authors.)

... tell you all about it 

I haven't been very good at keeping track of my reading on the blog. I read some wonderful books this year that I didn't get around to reviewing: Winesburg, Ohio, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Shirley, All Quiet on the Western Front, Native Son, The Golden Notebook. I will try to review some of these next year and try not to fall so far behind on my reviewing in general. It's not so much the sharing aspect of it that worries me - though I'm sure I missed a lot of great conversations by not discussing these books - as it is the fact that the posts I write are aids to memory (as Francis Bacon would call them) and boy, does my memory need them.

I think this is my last post for this year, so happy 2014! 

2014 TBR Pile Challenge
I'm signing up for Adam's TBR Pile Challenge for next year. For all two of you who've never heard of the challenge, this means that in 2014 I will aim to read and review twelve books that have been in my TBR pile for a long, looong time. I am allowed to list two alternatives, just in case some of the books from my list turn out to be too unbearable to finish. Here's my list, but promise not to laugh at me for not having read some of these sooner - just know that I could have put Lord of the Flies and The Scarlet Letter in there as well. My list went through several versions, but in the end I decided to only stick with new-to-me authors (with the exception of Tolstoy).

I will be updating this post with links to the reviews as I go, so keep an eye on this space if you'd like to know how it's going.
  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  4. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh 
  5. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  6. If This Is A Man by Primo Levi
  7. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  8. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  9. White Noise by Don DeLillo
  10. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  11. Germinal by Emile Zola
  12. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Back-up options: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.


Feminist Sundays: "It had to be uttered once in a life, to adjust the lopsidedness of the world."

This is going to be the laziest post ever, but, in our defense, we let Claudia read Fran├žois Poulain de la Barre and she was sucked into the depths of early modern feminism never to be seen again with no chance of getting out in time to write this week's post. So instead you'll get one of the nicest ways to describe what's in essence a feminist speech we've ever encountered. Like most nice things on our blog lately, it comes courtesy of E.M. Forster. The speech was Margaret's speech to Henry in Howards End, a very satisfying cry against double standards. We will quote it here in all its glory, but it might be spoiler-ish,  so cover your eyes if you haven't read the book and plan to:
“Not any more of this!” she cried. “You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognise them, because you cannot connect. I’ve had enough of your unneeded kindness. I’ve spoilt you long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told what you are—muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don’t repent. Only say to yourself, ‘What Helen has done, I’ve done.’”
The speech in itself was perfection. But the words Forster found to describe it were even better.

Review: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

I can't manage to write a coherent review for Howards End, even though I loved it and want to recommend it endlessly (or perhaps precisely because of that). So I will write about The Machine Stops instead, a sci-fi story by the same E.M. Forster. I must confess that I had no idea Forster had written anything that could be described as “sci-fi,” but I am glad I stumbled across this short story, because not only is it pretty compelling in its own right, but it also jibes unexpectedly well with Howards End.

One of the themes in Howards End is alienation in the modern world: the severed connection to nature; the city as a “tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity" encroaching upon nature; the motor cars traveling so quickly that one loses all sense of time and space after a drive; the oft-repeated notion that this progress of technology is unavoidable and one must simply adapt to it. The world as created by Forster's Wilcox family is not a pleasant place to inhabit, and this is not limited to England. Imperialism brings with it cosmopolitanism, so the quivering grey is to spread across the planet.
Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!
The Machine Stops takes place in the world that came to replace this civilization of speed. The human race has turned its back on nature, after one last effort to defeat it. The zenith of the civilization of speed was the attempt to “keep pace with the Sun” by flying high-speed airplanes westward in an attempt to neutralize Earth’s diurnal rotation. Once that failed, humanity lost all interest in nature and retreated underground, in a cocoon made possible by technology. Each individual lives in their own little hexagonal room within a huge Machine that fulfills their needs. They don’t go to things; things come to them. They never leave their rooms and rarely travel, for they have everything they could possibly want at their fingertips. They spend all their time discussing their ideas with friends from other cells, via the Machine’s communication systems. Being connected is the default:

Feminist Sundays: "Girls, forget what you've read. It happened like this -"

For this week's Feminist Sunday, we thought we'd share one of our favorite poems with you: Carol Ann Duffy's Eurydice. But first a few words on the remarkable volume this poem is part of: The World's Wife. The World's Wife relies on a simple but effective idea: it takes familiar stories of male heroes, from history or fiction, and retells them from the perspective of a female counterpart. The refashioned narratives range from Greek mythology to Freud's biography, and from Grimms' Fairy Tales to Hollywood blockbusters. In most cases, the woman whose voice we hear is the wife or mistress of the hero (hence the book's title), but there are a few stories retold from the point of view of a sister, and a couple that break the mold entirely, by relating two female perspectives and mentioning a man only indirectly (Demeter), or by exploring a gender-swapped version of the original narrative (like in the awesome Queen Kong).
You can easily see why we'd love this book. Our favorite stories are in there - and getting a new twist on them is always nice - but there is more to it than that. Giving a voice to a neglected female character, making her front and center and letting her give her take on the hero, is more than an addition to the original story - it's a vindication. And what is awesome about it is that we don't simply get the same old stories told by a different narrator. Duffy engages with these narratives by bringing women's experiences and women's concerns to the table, making us aware of the patriarchal conventions that underlay the originals. In most cases, getting her side of the story doesn't complete the story, it changes it altogether (in poignant, funny, raunchy ways).

One of the most satisfactory aspects of this book is the subversion of the idea that the hero's love interest is awestruck by him and happy to be part of his story. This is the central point in Eurydice, the poem we have unanimously settled on as our favorite. We've always suspected that if the muse talked back, what she'd say wouldn't be particularly kind to the poet. And it isn't. It's funny (a lot of poems in this volume are), it's biting, it's not without its beautiful moments despite this ("Please let me stay./ But already the light had saddened from purple to grey.") - it's, in a word, perfect and you should all read it below.

Who Would You Want To Be Written By?

Here's a silly little question for you, if you choose to engage it. Setting aside all the B-movie connotations of this scenario, if you were to be a character written by a (real, existing) author, who would you want that author to be and why?

For me, it would be Sherwood Anderson. In fact, this question first crossed my mind a few months ago, when I was reading Winesburg, Ohio. I was struck by the delicacy with which everything was handled in it, by the essential kindness underlying the narrative, and I realized that I wouldn't mind if someone wrote about me like that. This would be the kind of narrator who understands. One and one's silly dreams would not come out aggrandized in that narrative, but not be ridiculed either. What more could one ask for?

Oddly enough, I wouldn't like to be a character written by either of my two favorite writers (James and Faulkner), and the only other author who comes close is the E.M Forster of Howards End, who I think could describe all my actions and thoughts in clever sentences that make so much sense. (But I've no use for the Forster of A Room with a View or Where Angels Fear to Tread.)

So, who would do you justice?

Feminist Sundays: Books with Openly Feminist Characters

Hello and welcome to our very first Feminist Sunday! Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme started by Elena of Books and Reviews. It is supposed to be a space where we can discuss all sorts of things that might fall under the larger umbrella of feminism: from important female figures in history to the portrayal of women in fiction, and everything in between. We're very excited to join and we hope to participate every week (and perhaps have some of you join us as well). For now we thought we'd kick off this series by discussing - and hopefully getting some recommendations for - books with openly feminist characters.

What counts as an openly feminist character? 

We are not great readers of contemporary literary fiction. (And yes, that is a thing we are trying to fix.) We do know our media, though, and we are somewhat familiar with contemporary romance novels, too. Openly feminist characters are rarer in them than you might think, considering that feminism did change the world and in some cases made the plot of said books or movies possible. And much too often, when a feminist character does appear, she turns out to be a stereotype - the man-hating workaholic that needs to be tamed/defeated/abandoned by the hero or some variation thereof. (We say "she turns out to be" because there doesn't seem to be a parallel trope for male allies/feminist men.) So what are the features we are looking for in an openly feminist character?

"Give Mr. Bast money, and don't bother about his ideals. He'll pick up those for himself."

What's this?
You should know this one thing about me: I'm a sucker for books that touch upon 19th century and turn-of-the-century reform movements. It doesn't need to be the main topic of the book, it doesn't even need to be portrayed in a positive light, the simple mention of your typical socialist circle will have my ears perk up. I confess I don't know enough about these movements, either from a historical or from a theoretical perspective, and that's something I always promise myself I'll fix and never do. But, from the low perch of my knowledge, I feel that these people's questions are like my questions, and that exploring them will teach me something valuable.  

What that something will be, I don't know, I haven't reached it yet. But here's an example of the kind of discussion that gives me a jolt of recognition. You might have encountered variations of its modern version on the internet. How should we help poor people? Should we give homeless people money or just stuff we bought for them with that money? Should we impose restrictions on money people get from the government and, if so, what kind of restrictions? Should we force a set of values on them, along with our money? And now here is a scene from Howards End: a discussion at the group frequented by the progressive Schlegel sisters. (The quote is long, but read it through, the last sentence alone makes it worth it. All random bolding my own.)

On Beauty and Objectification

What's this?
Here's a thing I found interesting about On Beauty. As it is made clear at various points throughout the text, the novel owes some of its ideas to Elaine Scarry's essay, On Beauty and Being Just (an essay I discussed at length in these two posts). The connection between fiction and a theory that might inform it is interesting and horribly complicated, and I don't really want to go into that here. But what I do want to point out is one way in which Smith departs from this theoretical framework, namely the fact that she engages more seriously with the idea that there is a darker side to beauty than Scarry does. This is especially true when it comes to the way we treat people based on their physical beauty.

You might remember that this was a sensitive point with Scarry, because she felt that Objectification as a buzzword turns academics away from honest discussions of beauty. She pushed instead for the idea that the beholder has long been understood (and should be still) as more vulnerable than the person beheld, because the beholder is in a way bewitched and helpless before beauty. Scarry then argues that this first reaction (this "pleasure-filled tumult") is a catalyst for our bringing more beauty into the world, in the form of art, fair laws etc.

You first get a sense that that might not be the case in Zadie Smith's world from the poem she quotes as belonging to one of her characters, Claire Malcolm, and which functions as a sort of second, intra-textual source for the novel's title. (On Beauty (the poem) was actually written by Nick Laird, and I think its title is also derived from Scarry's essay, which does sort of plunge us into Title Inception.) Here's the first stanza (and here is the rest of the poem):