New Series: Reading Through the Stacks: Possibly the Most Boring Thing Written about Shakespeare?

This series is being born out of a dangerous whim, which I can only attribute to the temporary giddiness of a new library card.

Upon seeing the (truthfully rather average sized) poetry collection at the main branch, I was seized by an impulse to read from one end of the poetry section to the other. From A to Z (if, in fact, it ends in Z).

I don’t think I’ll like everything. In fact, I know I won’t. I started with 3 books, and I only enjoyed one. But I do have some (snarky?) things to say about them, and I thought if I’m taking myself on this (admittedly arbitrary) journey, you might enjoy coming along for the ride.

Along the way I hope we will discover some fantastic poetry from throughout the ages. Most of it will probably be bad. But that’s where the thrill of the hunt comes in!

Why read bad poetry? You may ask. My answer to this is that as a relative new comer to this genre I want to read as much and as widely as I can to really get a feel for what’s out there, who came before, who’s writing now, and what I actually like. And since I don’t have to shell out for volumes I don’t like, I’m hoping to build my library with only poetry volumes I can’t wait to reread.

Even if you don’t like poetry, I hope this series inspires you to delve into something you’re interested with new eyes. Maybe you’ll find a book here that intrigues you, or maybe you’ll start your own challenge for yourself!

Or maybe you’ll just have fun reading while I complain about terrible books. There’s something for everyone on this journey.

So we might as well get to it.

This book still has its old library checkout card. I may be one of the only people to have checked out this book since the late 1950s.

Book 1: By Avon River by H.D. Hilda Doolittle Aldington (1949)

H.D. (September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961) was a modernist poet known for free verse and imagist style associated with poets like Ezra Pound. She married a poet named Aldington, which is why she was cataloged at the beginning of this alphabetical journey. There’s a clarification of that written in pencil on the title page. It seems off to me that she’s cataloged under her married name instead of her pen name, especially since her career was already well underway by the time she was married.

Themes: Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry

Published for Shakespeare day 1945, this book has a short section of verse inspired by Shakespeare. Like 25 pages. Most of it is centered on The Tempest and even more squarely focused on one offstage character, Claribel, who sets the plot in motion but never gets a real voice in the play. Her poetry delves into the relationship between the poet and Claribel and her relationship to the rest of the play and its characters. She becomes kind of a haunting, distant presence, but one who has a lasting impact even though the mention of her is fleeting. I really enjoyed the second poem, “Rosemary” the best, which alternates form, points of view, and theme in the different sections.

Read through again, Dramatis Personae;

She is not there at all, but Claribel,

Claribel, the birds shrill, Claribel,

Claribel echoes from this rainbow-shell,

I stooped just now to gather from the sand

“The Tempest” by H.D., from section IV

While the verse gives voice to Claribel, the remainder of the book (about 70 pages) is an essay discussing Shakespeare’s contemporaries and their writing. It’s a lot of names and dates and quotes, which I (mostly) skimmed, but some of the discussion of themes especially mortality were interesting. Mostly it was a total snooze, especially since H.D. really never bothers to make an argument or get into why it’s important to look at Shakespeare in this context. It reads more as an associative catalog with some interesting quotes.

She never had a word to say,

An emblem, a mere marriage token,

Nor even trod a rondelay

Or watched a play within a play

With other ladies–and yet–

I wonder when the time was short,

And he had said farewell to court,

And pondered, fingering the script

Can this then, really be the last?

If he remembered Claribel.

“Rosemary” by H.D., from section IX

Ultimately, not the most promising start even with the rather interesting verses about Clairbel, but the next book will make up for it. Stay tuned.

Have a favorite Shakespeare play/line/character? Have you read H.D. before? Let me know in the comments!

JK Rowling Has Disappointed Me

I have made no secret of loving the Harry Potter series, either on this blog or in my everyday life and proudly identify myself as a Ravenclaw. And yet, the author of this most-beloved series has recently come out as anti-trans, testing the love that I have for the author of one of my most beloved childhood series. I recently read Molly Fischer’s article on JK Rowling on Vulture, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

To be honest, JK Rowling has been testing my love for a while. I have always been a bit troubled that she wouldn’t just leave her series alone instead of constantly dropping knowledge bombs on readers. Mostly because I’m not sure that giving readers “revelations” is all that necessary or helpful. Instead, those revelations have felt like a desperate bid on Rowling’s part to hang onto her fictional universe and to maintain control over how that universe is interpreted. In my opinion, once you share your fictional world with others, you have ceded that control. They story has been given to us, and now it is apart of us. The magic of Harry Potter doesn’t just come from the words Rowling put on the page, but also from the interactions readers have with this universe and its characters. While Rowling of course maintains copyright over her world, I don’t believe that the reading experience belongs to her, nor should it be dictated by her. Without the readers and their own interpretations, all you have is print on the pages of closed books. The magic comes from the dialogue between hearts and minds of the readers and the words she penned.

This is not to say that Harry Potter is perfect. It’s not. While it has always felt inspiring to me, it doesn’t deal a lot in ambiguities, has major diversity problems, and presents a mostly white, cis view of the world. We can (and should) critique it in many ways. But now I am presented with a separate issue, which is how to reconcile the political views of the author with a magical world that I have loved since I was eight years old.

This is a problem that doesn’t apply solely to JK Rowling. Deciding how/whether to separate the creator from the art they’ve created is a complex problem, applying to a great many children’s book authors, and I don’t pretend to have any answers about it. I understand that many people make decisions about the world that we live in based on fear and trauma. But it’s particularly disappointing to have anti-trans sentiments spew forth from an author whose character’s were supposed to be judged based on their actions rather than their abilities they were born with, and who were seen for their potential. In a children’s author who prizes imagination, the lack of empathy Rowling has shown is disappointing and hurtful. And I understand that it’s okay to disagree with people politically, but I find it harder to disagree productively with someone who sees certain groups of people as less worthy of the love, nurturing, and worth that she instilled into her characters.

Ultimately, I’m not sure where that leaves me. Exhausted? Exasperated? Often when the world makes me feel this way, I return to Harry Potter for comfort. I still think these books have done a lot of good–inspiring fanfiction writers and activists (Harry Potter Alliance) and tolerance. If I believe that the magic of these books are partially created in the minds of the people who read them, I must believe there’s still a lot more good they can do. But maybe it’s the fans and readers we need to turn to for answers rather than the author, who unleashed her books on the world and who now has to understand that the magic belongs to all of us. And I mean all of us.

My Top 10 Reads of 2020

This year I read 150 books, and though it was a bit of a mixed bag with plenty of books I didn’t finish and lots of reading for classes, there were still a number of great books. In fact there were well over 30 books this year that I unreservedly loved, and narrowing it down to 10 was a bit of a challenge, but (somehow) I managed to do it because a top 30 favorite books of the year list is a little too much, even for me.

2020 was a strange year for reading. Although I read more than I have done in many years, it came in strange bursts and droughts. I found a lot of great comfort reading, in the form of romances and magical books. The great thing about fantasy and historical fiction is that it takes you somewhere else, but I think the best of these books are imbued not just with escapism but with a mindfulness that’s as full of the real issues of the world as it is with the otherworldly. For me, reading is a journey into empathy, imagination, and hope rather than an escape. My 10 favorite books differ quite a bit in terms of genre, but they all explore how we come to be where we are and who we are and they don’t hide the fact that this process is a struggle whether against society, the self, or the supernatural.

My 10 favorites, in reverse order of reading (most recent first):

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab This book has everything: deals with the devil, a feisty protagonist, twists and turns…I couldn’t stop reading it. Recommended for: Anyone who needs to be reminded to seize the day. In other words, everyone. I think this is a widely enjoyable book.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks Historical fiction at its finest–the kind that connects you to the past and shows you that the past is still with us, even when it’s hard to see. Recommended for: Anyone who likes historical fiction or books.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett More great historical fiction. This book tells the story of two sisters who make very different choices and lead very different lives. Recommended for: Anyone who’s looking for a family saga.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik I have read quite a bit of Novik’s work at this point, and really enjoy her writing. Her characters are really strong and have believable voices. Although I still prefer Uprooted, this book has even more strong female voices in it, and I love how she spins together threads from so many different fairytales and folklore. Recommended for: Anyone who’s tired of how many fantasy books are about dudes.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi Even though the title gives away the fate of the main character, this book doesn’t get less heartbreaking, poignant, or beautiful. Recommended for: Anyone who needs to be reminded of the power of community (for both good and bad).

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood I couldn’t put this short story collection down. I really like Atwood’s command over her sentences and structures and the worlds she spins. One of these stories does relate to her novel The Robber Bride, but I don’t think you need to have read that to enjoy the stories. That said, that book is well worth reading as well. Recommended for: Anyone who wants their narrative in rapid, witty bursts.

This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel Over the holiday, my brother and I had an interesting conversation about the ethical dilemma of parenting a transgender child and what that would mean, which is what this book explores in a humanizing and life-affirming way. Recommended for: Anyone intrigued by this conversation.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston Okay so this one is pure escapist fantasy. But it’s the pure escapist fantasy I needed. The gay romance is hot, romantic, and so sweet, and I love the exploration of this alternate universe. Recommended for: Anyone who needs a reminder about the joys and sorrows of first love. And some escapist romance.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow Speaking of alternate universes, what if there were doors hanging around, waiting to be discovered that could take you to other worlds? Recommended for: Anyone who would open the door.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter A short, image-packed, coming-of-age novel that is the stuff of my dark fairy tale dreams. Recommended for: Anyone who likes their stories a little darker.

Have you read any of these or are you interested in reading any of these? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

When You Need a Good Book: Readers’ Advisory

In my reference class this semester we’ve been talking about how to find books for patrons in need of a new great read. The holidays are fast approaching and maybe you’re planning on getting a book for yourself or for someone else this holiday season. Need a good recommendation? You can drop a comment on this blog post, and I’ll give you personalized book recommendations!

Let me know:

  • Is this book for you or someone else?
  • What’s something you/your recipient has read recently and enjoyed?
  • Are you looking for something similar or a little different?

Feel free to share as much detail as you’d like. You can also let me know if you’d prefer a new release or something you’ll be able to find in paperback or used.

Here are my favorite online retailers:

  1. You’re local bookstore! Check your local bookstore’s website and see if they’re offering pick-up or if they’ll ship directly to you. Many will be happy to order a book specially for you.
  2. If you can’t get to the local bookstore, try Bookshop.org. They give 30% of book sales directly to local bookstores. You can search for your local bookstore and make sure that they are supported.
  3. For used books: thriftbooks.com. I love that I can search for exactly the books I want or need and choose their condition. Shipping tends to be quick.
  4. For pretty UK covers: Book Depository. If average book covers leave you underwhelmed, try this seller. They offer free shipping on all orders. Order by December 9th for delivery by Christmas.

Thoughts on the Princess Diaries Series, 11 Years Later

This has been a strange year for reading. There are times when I’ve devoured books, and other times where I don’t read anything (except required reading) for weeks. I wanted to reread a series, more for comfort than anything else, and I decided to pick something other than the Harry Potter books, which I reread often. It had been a long time since I’d read the Princess Diaries series, and that’s what I picked.

At the beginning of the Bay Area lockdown, it was pretty difficult to get your hands on a physical library book, which left eLibrary options like ebooks and audiobooks. I decided to listen to the audiobooks, since I’ve only ever listened to the first 2 or 3, which are narrated by Anne Hathaway. The remainder of the series is narrated by Clea Lewis, who is not quite as engaging as Hathaway, but who nevertheless manages to capture some of the breathless charm of Mia’s voice.

If you haven’t read the book(s) or seen the films, here’s the summary: Mia Thermopolis is a normal (white, upper middle class) girl, growing up in Manhattan. She has regular problems like being terrible at algebra and generally not liking her appearance. She cares about the environment and her cat. Her mom is an artist and her friend has her own local public access TV show. One day, her dad tells her that he has cancer and can no longer have kids, making her, his illegitimate daughter, heir to the throne of a small European principality, Genovia. Shenanigans ensue. For 10 books. Basically there’s some major romance and the quest that Mia goes on to find where she belongs and what her purpose is beyond being a princess.

I think these books are still the light and frothy entertainment they were meant to be. The problem is that, unlike when I was 14, I no longer have any desire to be a princess. I also find Mia a little….self-centered. I didn’t feel that way as a teenager. Instead I felt that her problems were as big as mine (or bigger), and I definitely identified with her struggles with anxiety and depression (I still feel like this is the highlight of the series). However, I think that her very narrow world view keeps her from being a really empathetic character, which in turn diminishes my sympathy for her. She’s also frustrating. I have very little patience for her lack of awareness and the way she jumps to mind-boggling conclusions without seeking evidence or using any kind of reasoning. Of course, I feel that way about a book I’m reading right now that was written for adults, so maybe this is just a frustration with this character type. I prefer characters who are more introspective, logical, and self-aware. Otherwise, they venture very quickly into poor-me/why-me territory or are just totally beaten down, and that’s just not that fun.

However, I like that Mia struggles between her principles and her lived experience. This is totally relatable, and it forces Mia to grapple with her privilege–something I wish the series did more. In Princess Diaries IV 1/2: Project Princess, Mia volunteers with a Habitat for Humanity type of program to build houses for a family in a rural area. Never having experienced a wooded, forest environment, Mia romanticizes this experience before she goes since she loves the environment. She learns that this love does not extend to bugs, and not having clean drinking water, and sleeping on the ground. In a real way Mia is forced to experience something very different from the privileged environments that she grows up in and challenges her assumptions about the people who live there. I wish more of the series forced Mia out of her comfort zone.

Although Mia is a fairly liberal and progressive character, you can definitely tell that this series was written more than 10 years ago and that conversations have progressed around ideas of feminism (Mia is a feminist but has basically zero awareness of intersectional issues) and climate change. Whereas Mia is worried about whales and polar bears, today I am worried not only about widespread extinction but also massive forced migration from rising sea levels, food insecurity, massive climate events like fires and hurricanes, the evils of plastic and our lack of real recycling–generally the prevention of a Wall-E level planet destruction. I also feel like Mia mostly helps the environment by donating money rather than on the ground activism, but maybe this is an unfair feeling because she does try to make policy decisions that help the environment and uses her celebrity to talk about these issues.

Reading this series was deeply nostalgic for me, but I have to admit one of my biggest takeaways was how glad I am not to be a teenager any longer. I do not miss how overwhelming all my problems felt. What I’ve come to appreciate about reading is that we (hopefully) come across books when we need them and that not every book stands up to a new phase of life. And that’s okay. Even if one of my favorite teen authors is no longer my favorite author–it doesn’t mean that the experience of reading those books as a teen has been diminished. It’s not that the books have changed or were less good than I thought they were, it’s just that I’m a different person now than I was when I first read them. Honestly, that’s probably a good thing.

Have you reread a book recently? Do you feel the same way about it now that you did the first time? Let me know about your rereading experiences/your thoughts on the Princess Diaries in the comments!

A Friend’s Reading Challenge: 10 Books in a Week

One of my best friends is an avid reader and often reads voraciously in a very short period. She took a few days off of work with the goal to read 10 books. This sounded like fun, so I thought I’d join her in trying to read 10 books before my classes started a few weeks ago. Well, I failed the challenge by only making it to 9 books. But that’s still enough to merit a blog post, so onward!

Stats:

  • Books read: 9
  • Fiction: 7
  • Nonfiction: 2
  • Genres: Historical fiction, fantasy, biography, classic, contemporary fiction, literary fiction, memoir, romance
  • Total number of pages: 2,889
  • Audiobooks: 3
  • Ebooks: 1
  • Actual books: 4

Here are the books I read for this challenge, in the order I read them.

  1. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride I love historical fiction that encounters important people and events almost by happenstance, and that’s what happens when young Henry is freed from slavery to (forcibly) join John Brown’s fight for abolition. As a girl. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. The book is irreverent, and its satire is complex. But it is often moving and hopeful as it deals with powerful themes of identity, faith, survival, and race.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly When fantasy novels feature young protagonists, that often means that they’re using the fantasy world to process some kind of trauma that they’re experiencing in real life. That’s definitely what happens here as David mourns his mother and finds another world that is even darker than he could have imagined. This book sort of reminded me of a cross between Labyrinth and Narnia. I wish the book hadn’t been quite so human-centric though and been more interested in the other side of monsters. I felt some of the conclusions it drew were a little easy, but I think it has really interesting themes of sacrifice and a fun, slightly gruesome quest. Side note: The cover of this book is so gorgeous.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

3. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster I saw the film version with Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith before I read the book. I have to confess I thought the movie was rather stale (and I hate the way they did the hair and costuming), but the book was so much fun. I found it to be quite funny and eager to make fun of all the ridiculous characters. Plus the protagonist actually learns something. And gets the guy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

4. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh When someone writes a memoir about their experience, there’s less suspense about the outcome because even though they engaged in risky behavior x they lived long enough to tell about it. The author is not a likable person, but she’s kind of deliciously terrible and her standards for her own behavior are so far removed from mine that I found her fascinating. Her journey to sleep (as much as possible) for a year is bizarre and privileged, but ultimately I think she does learn about why it’s worth being awake.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

5. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman Before I read this book, the previous book I had read that was set in Los Angeles was Patrisse Khan Cullor’s book, When They Call You a Terrorist. It’s hard to imagine that these two different versions of LA exist side by side every day–the white, middle-class privilege on the one hand and the poor, Black experience of racism could not be more different. It was a startling contrast that really resonated with me as I read this otherwise kind of fluffy book. It’s protagonist, Nina, is so similar to me in her love of organization and reading and her anxiety… she’s kind of an amplified but eerily familiar version of myself. Sometimes you just need more romance in your life.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

6. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne Though I’m not sure I loved everything about this biography, I did love the way it was organized around objects in Austen’s life and the significance that they had to her and as objects that can be used to describe the time period and give more insight to the way she would have lived.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

7. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi This book was so good. It was my Book of the Month choice from the five that were available in August, and I really loved the way it dealt with identity, family, and love. It was sad of course, following the investigation of Vivek Oji’s death in order to explain what was so extraordinary about their life.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

8. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik Female driven fantasy? Yes, please. On the surface this is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, but beneath that it follows three strong women making their way in very different classes and life situations as they use their wit to protect their families, further their fortunes, and generally kick ass and save the day.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

9. A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler It’s been a long time since a book made me cry, but this one did. I won’t give away the ending, but this story about race in a neighborhood that considers itself to be colorblind will move you. It is tragic and feels all too familiar for the times we’re in.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read any of these books? Did any catch your eye? Let me know in the comments.

How I Analyze Art: Context is Everything

I think almost every object we interact with is worthy of deeper consideration. Whether it’s a piece of advertising, a chair in our homes, a film, a game, a book–every object has the potential to reveal something. For me what makes this a worthwhile is not the object in and of itself, but the context we are experiencing it in.

Think about this: when you watch your favorite movie tonight while you’re eating dinner, you are creating a unique experience. Never before has someone viewed this film, in this exact place, seeing exactly what you’ve seen before, and knowing/believing exactly what you know/believe. Even though you’ve watched this film many, many times, watching it tonight is still a new experience. Maybe you’re distracted and playing on your phone. Maybe you repeat all the lines. Your relationship to this object is unique and that’s due partially to the qualities of the object, but also to how it relates to your life.

Every time you interact with a piece of art, there are two sets of contexts that overlap. First, there’s the context that surrounds you as a reader/viewer/player (I’m going to abbreviate this to RVP). This is the accumulation of what you know, what you’ve experienced and learned, your childhood and upbringing, and even your biases and prejudices.

Secondly, there is the context around the text itself. This might include historical context like when it was created, who created it, and what else was being made at the time. And cultural context like where it was made, what the customs/traditions around making art and media are in that location, how does the creator/text relate to the culture, etc. I’m sure you can think of many more.

Not only does all this context have the potential to give you insight into the world around the object, it allows you to have a conversation or a dialogue with the art piece. The experience you have with the art is unique. Although you can be taught to notice certain nuances that are in that piece of art or any piece of art (like color palette and shot styles in film, or motifs and sentence structure in a book) what you actually take away from that book is a product of what you’re looking for, what you already know, and where you are in your life and journey with art. I don’t read books in the same way that I did when I was a teenager, or the same way I did in college. I now have the benefit of all that experience.

Even when I’m not actively doing analysis, context still applies. For example it’s easier than ever for me to tell in a few pages if I’m going to like a book based on whether and how it’s similar to things I’ve read before and liked or if it’s different in interesting ways. It lets me know what kinds of details and structures I’m interested in, so I know what to pay attention to in a film or book. When I watch movies, I’m interested most in mise en scene. I love costuming and set design. I’m obsessed with how movies look. But my husband is totally different, he’s listening to the sound. Is it diegetic (can the characters hear it too?)? Does it seem appropriate or is it overdone? This means that when the movie is over, we have a lot to talk about because we were noticing a lot when the movie was playing.

When you’re asked what a book/film/painting means, in many ways you are describing what it means to you. Analysis is about what you can creatively notice, describe, and support. Taking classes that teach you how to analyze texts help you develop a vocabulary to talk about what you’re interested in, and see patterns in how those interests translate into different art forms.

Even when the creator tells you what they were trying to achieve or get across in the work, you don’t have to take their words at face value. Their part in the work is now only context. Their ideas and opinions influenced what they created, but they don’t sum up your unique experience–they don’t even matter that much because what the art is is not necessarily what the creator wanted it to be. So I try not to worry too much about what the author says their book means because all they can tell me is what the book means to them. I think it’s much more interesting if I can provide evidence for what the book means to me.

What I love about analysis is that it’s a tool that allows us to explore complexity and make our understanding of the world more nuanced and complicated. Analysis of art reminds us there are many ways to be correct and many experiences that are true. And I find that somehow both exciting and comforting.

How do you go about analyzing something? What do you find most interesting in the piece of art you’re looking at? Let me know in the comments!