Goodbye, October

October was a really good month for us and most of it was due to Adam's LGBT reading event, The Literary Others. It was the best introduction to LGBT literature we could have hoped for. We got a list of books we can't wait to read. (Who doesn't love a good list?) We revisited some old favorites (Death in Venice and Angels in America). We discovered two excellent writers (Isherwood and Baldwin) and organized our first giveaway. We met great people and found some awesome new-to-us blogs. Oh yes, and we read and reviewed these books:


We'd like to thank Adam for organizing this event. We knew it was going to be great, but it really exceeded all our expectations. Towards the middle of this month, this event also took on a personal significance for one of us. So, Adam, thank you!

In different news, our tumblr project, Reader Shaming, took off nicely, thanks to Book Riot. Make sure to visit it and see all the new submissions and send your own. It warms our hearts to see how much we have in common with other readers. (We also may or may not have a happy dance routine for every submission, but the less said about that the better.)

Sample from Reader Shaming

So do we, and that's pretty much what we plan to do this November.

Review: The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault

I normally wouldn't discuss philosophy books here - and Foucault's histories are philosophy, regardless of their titles - but I read this one for The Literary Others event and I had to have something to show for it. But since we're talking of three volumes here, and we can assume both my time and your patience to be finite, I am just going to briefly outline some of the main ideas in this work and then say a little something about the style and readability of each volume, in case you decide to read them.

First, of all The History of Sexuality was supposed to be a six-volume work, but Foucault died with only three volumes published and a fourth almost completed (it hasn't been published to this day). His initial plan seems to have been to show that sexuality is socially and historically determined and tied up with power dynamics, in volume 1, and then write the history of modern sexuality from the 17th century onwards. But then this plan changed to comparing sexuality in the Greek and Roman antiquity with sexuality in the Christian tradition, as a better way to illustrate his point. He only got to work on one side of this comparison: in volumes 2 and 3 he explored the role of sex in the Greek and Roman antiquity, highlighting some elements that seem very familiar to the Christian culture as we know it, but that had very different functions in their historical context. So what are the three ideas that I took away from these books?

Review: Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Why hello there, lovely readers. I have to admit I'm pretty bashful about writing this post for the obvious reason that it's been a long time since a review has gone up under my byline. That's been due to a string of real life annoyances that I won't bore you with, but I'm thrilled to be back, if still a bit self-conscious about my prolonged absence.

Anyways, today I'm delighted to be reviewing the magnificent Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner. Angels in America is mega-play composed of two distinct, but complementary, plays, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika.

I first read Millennium Approaches back in college and loved it, so I jumped at the opportunity to re-read it and to finally tackle Perestroika, which has been on my 'need-to-read' list for quite a while.

Although I have to admit I've struggled with how to adequately review Angels in America for the last few weeks. Why? For the simple fact that Angels in America is a masterpiece. Period. It's one of the most ambitious, funny, thoughtful, profound, and provocative pieces of literature you'll ever read. It's also one of the most important works of American drama ever written. So, frankly, you just have to read it.

But if I left my review at that, I imagine you might have any number of rightful questions such as "Um, okay...what is this two-part play thingie even about and what makes it so good?" So come and follow me over the jump as I try to explain just what I find so special about Angels in America.

Review: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

I read Giovanni's Room earlier this month, right after I finished A Single Man. I'll try to be honest with you: after Isherwood's airy, delicate prose, reading Baldwin feels like being hit by a ton of bricks. A ton of occasionally very beautiful bricks, but bricks nonetheless. When his sentences work, they achieve that sort of beauty that's almost indistinguishable from the effects of being hit in the stomach and left breathless. The world recedes, the rest of the book recedes; the sentences before and after blur out of focus. But the downside to this style is that, when it doesn't work, you'll know it doesn't. You'll have the metaphorical bruises to show for it. And I just wasn't sure whether, on the whole, Giovanni's Room didn't give me more bruises than moments of breathlessness. So I read it a second time and I think I figured out now what was good about it and what was...less than good.

Review: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice is a story about Plato and Nietzsche and how wonderful and terrifying the world is through their eyes. I'm only half kidding. Consider our hero, Gustav von Aschenbach. He's a writer that made it to fame and greatness by exercising self-restraint and discipline, by fighting against his body's limitations and suppressing his baser impulses. He is a martyr for his art (and this is not just my metaphor, his brand of "active enduring" is compared to St. Sebastian's):
Once, in a less than conspicuous passage, Aschenbach stated outright that nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles. But it was more than an observation; it was his experience, the very formula of his life and fame, the key to his work.
If we follow Nietzsche's much-quoted dichotomy, what Aschenbach aspires to be is an Apollonian hero. And this works well with the classicism he seems to belong to as a writer, because the Apollonian is the element of form, rigor, rationality, distance from feelings, restraint (after the god Apollo, the god of sun and light). But, according to Nietzsche, throughout the history of humanity, this element of order battled an element of chaos, the Dionysian (after the god Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy and all sorts of good times). In the beginning of the novella, Aschenbach, who embraced the Apollonian both in his life and in his works, sees a red-haired man in front of a mortuary chapel one day, has a vision of a jungle, and is seized by a sudden desire to travel. Nothing good can come out of this and nothing good does.

And the winners are...

... everyone who entered! So Heather won Orlando, Carola won Maurice, and Karla and Jennifer won Death in Venice. (We've decided to give away two copies of Death in Venice so that no one is left out.) We'll be sending out emails in a moment, but if you ladies see this before getting the email feel free to send us your addresses at bloggeradmin[at]lithitchhiker[dot]com.


"We revere the novels of Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and others, but..."

I'm rereading Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and my edition has a rather interesting introduction by Michael Cunningham. He's talking about the difficulties of any translation, of how writing and translating a text are very similar activities (writers "translate" the brute material of a novel into words), and about how a translation can alter the original atmosphere of a book. In this case, the current translation of Mann by Michael Heim gives Aschenbach a tragic and heroic edge that he lacked in the old Lowe-Porter translation. Now, the question is: which of these translations is more faithful to the author's intentions? 

Thomas Mann lifts an eyebrow at your translation

And here is where it gets tricky. In order to answer that question, Cunningham tries to characterize Thomas Mann independently of these translations. He claims Mann was one of the last writers of his kind, that even though he was the contemporary of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, he was quintessentially a 19th century writer, not ready to give up the authority of his writer's voice. And also not using language the way "proper" 20th century writers would: 
Language itself, in fiction, would become a more fluid and vital part of the whole [after Mann].  We would, for the most part, dispense with the notion of the author as architect, carving sentences out of granite and setting them one atop another in support of a great theme. We revere the novels of Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and others, but we do not remember and cherish individual lines, not the way we do lines from Joyce or Woolf. We aren't meant to.
My first reaction to those sentences in bold was "But no, that can't be." Theoretically it should hold, because there is a more conscious focus on language in 20th century literature. But does this really translate to us cherishing or revering individual lines from these writers in a way we didn't lines from 19th century authors? I'm not convinced, because on one hand I'm not sure how representative someone like Joyce is in this context. I think his love of language games sets him apart not only from previous generations, but also from his own generation and almost everyone else in the history of English literature. Joyce is very quotable. Others aren't, even when they do play with language. And on the other front, I don't know about Hardy, but Eliot, and Dickens in particular did produce memorable individual lines. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...", no?

So what do you make of this? 
 
And by the way, if you're curious about the problem of translation, Cunningham concludes that Heim gives us a more humane perspective on Aschenbach than Mann probably intended, and that this perspective turns Aschenbach into a modern hero in the line of Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway, which is rather cool in itself.

Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I shouldn't have liked this book. Consider the following:

1. I don't like Virginia Woolf. It's weird, since "modernist" and "feminist" are THE two words that I would have sworn can make me automatically like someone, but there you have it. I'm aware of the qualities of her writing intellectually, I realize they're qualities I usually appreciate in other people, but I can't help it. I get zero pleasure from reading her. And because I know I should like her, this makes me feel inadequate. Virginia Woolf makes me feel like I'll never be mature enough - or smart enough, or sophisticated enough - to get her.

2. I don't like magic realism. (And I would classify Orlando, anachronistically or not, as playing in magic realism.) I like my fictional worlds to have clear rules. I don't particularly like fantasy either, but at least there you know where you stand. Breaking the laws of nature and having a very matter-of-fact tone about it makes me... twitchy and unhappy. I might still like or even love the books (I did go through a Read All The Rushdies phase as a teen), but my enjoyment of them will be inevitably marred to an extent.

And yet I loved Orlando. I loved it because it was like a cavalcade through history and that more than made up for the fact its hero(ine) inexplicably took more than three centuries to reach the age of thirty, while kings, queens and poets flitted in and out of hir life. I loved it because each century had its own atmosphere, and the Victorian and Edwardian periods in particular were so strikingly captured. I loved it because it was clever enough when it played with and gently mocked the conventions of the biography in the first part, but it got almost unbearably clever once the great twist took place and Orlando, so far a handsome and accomplished young man, became a woman. I loved it because it went there. I loved it because it was a sharp critique of gender roles. I loved it for its wit and humor. I loved it for the way said wit and humor didn't seem to completely demolish their targets. This was a satire of so many things, and yet it never left a bad taste behind, which satire sometimes does.

Were there still moments when my old problem with Woolf came back? Yes. There were moments when I felt bored and totally disconnected with this book and wished I were reading something else. But unlike my previous experiences with Virginia Woolf (hi there, The Years, did you know you made me give up reading for a whole year after abandoning you in the middle?), there always came something that made it worth it. Sometimes it was a cutting comment about women's position in the Victorian society. At other times it was some impressive description, like the moment black clouds cover the sky at midnight and we're told that "All was dark; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun." But most often it was some patch of pretty writing, like this:
Every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragon-flies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women.
Orlando is above all a playful book and a book that exudes a love for words and for writing. It seems wrong to dissect it, wrong to label it, especially when one isn't very eloquent to begin with. It is against its spirit. So these impressions are all I have. This is a book to be savored. I enjoyed it much more than I expected and I encourage you to do the same.

Don't forget that we're offering this book in our giveaway. If this review made you curious, you can still enter here for a chance to win Orlando.


This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're curious about what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.

The Woolf-Forster-Mann Giveaway

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our first ever giveaway. As you know, this month is LGBT History Month in the USA and we're participating in Adam's LGBT Reading Event: The Literary Others. In honor of this event and since we mainly read and review the classics here at Lit. Hitchhiker, we've decided to give away three classic titles that have an LGBT theme/component. These titles are Virginia Woolf's Orlando, E.M. Forster's Maurice and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (in a volume that also includes other stories). We'll be giving away one copy of each, preferably in the editions featured below.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
E.M Forster, Maurice

So what do you have to do in order to enter this giveaway? First of all, you have to be a registered participant in Adam's event (i.e. you must have left a comment on this post). Secondly, you need to live in a country that Book Depository ships to. And then you just have to leave a comment on this post, saying which of the books above you'd like to win and where we can contact you if you do win (in case this information isn't easily available on your profile). We'd love it if you also suggested an LGBT title we might enjoy, but that's not mandatory.

You can also win additional entries by a. following us on twitter or b. spreading the word about this giveaway on twitter or elsewhere. If you choose b, please let us know either by tagging us on twitter or by commenting here, so that we don't miss your extra entry.

This giveaway will end on October 20. The winners will have 48 hours to respond to our e-mails or we'll pick someone else.

That's about it, rules-wise. We're very excited to be sharing these books with you, as we know and love two of them - Orlando and Death in Venice (expect some reviews this week) - and have heard good things about the third. We hope you'll love them as well. Good luck!



This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're interested in signing up, you can do it here. If you want to check out what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.

Top Ten Tuesday & Our New Project

Today's Top Ten Tuesday won't be entirely on our blog and here's why. A few weeks ago, the topic on TTT was Bookish Confessions. We had an idea for that topic, but we were too late to actually put together the post that week. So we decided to do it for freebie week instead, and also launch a project related to it. You see, our idea was to put our bookish confessions in the form of notes like the ones they use on Dog Shaming (or if you want a site that's actually about humans, Philosopher-Shaming, that Claudia can't find enough good words about). We asked around and it turned out some of our friends had their own bookish confessions to share, so we decided to start a tumblr and call it - you guessed it - Reader Shaming.

So here are some of our confessions and some the pictures we have some far. We would love it if you submitted our own here:

 

You can find the rest on tumblr. More pictures to come, as we do have a bunch of bookish secrets. And we would love it if you submitted your own "reader's shame note." The more, the merrier.


Race in A Single Man: A Passage That Made Me Very Uncomfortable

What's a footnote?
I have mixed feelings about the way race is portrayed in A Single Man. On one hand, it is clear that Isherwood is trying to present sexual orientation as something that turns you into a minority much the same way race does. George, privileged on numerous axes (class, race, gender), is nonetheless a minority because of his sexual orientation. I'm not sure how groundbreaking this was at the time this novel was published, but I'm inclined to think it must have been, because thinking of sexual orientation in these terms dismantles narratives that present it as a sin or a crime. And this is very obvious when George has his terrorist fantasies about the oppressing majority, including people who want to tighten the laws against "sexual deviates." He's quick to think that Mexican and black people never figure into these violent scenarios, because they're not The Enemy:
Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful. George would not care to live here, because they all blast all day long with their radios and television sets. But he would never find himself yelling at their children, because these people are not The Enemy. If they would ever accept George, they might even be allies.
On the other hand, George is not entirely at ease among people you'd classify as minorities. (And we won't include women here.) It's fair to say that every time someone who is not white appears, George thinks of them primarily in terms of their race. Asian people are enigmatic, but "by far the most beautiful creatures in the class; their beauty is like the beauty of plants, seemingly untroubled by vanity, anxiety or effort." And they continue to be enigmatic and plantlike every single time they make an appearance. The brightest black student in his class intimidates him because he "suspects her of suspecting him of all kinds of subtle discrimination."

I can accept this hyper-awareness. It's believable. I can accept the rambling discourse about minorities he delivers to his students when they ask him if Huxley was anti-Semitic. It makes a couple of good points: how minorities are not automatically angels just by virtue of having been oppressed or persecuted, how color-blindness is bullshit etc. But it also gets into very muddy waters (we'll call these muddy waters Godwin's Creek, colloquially known as "Ah, if only the Nazis were more frank about their feelings"):

Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

It's been a few days since I finished this book and I couldn't find the words to review it. To tell you the truth, I only felt the need to say two things: 1. that this is a beautiful novel and everyone should read it and 2. that Isherwood has a wonderful ear for dialogue. But if this didn't make you close the window immediately and go hunt down a copy of A Single Man, I suppose I could find another thousand words or so to say about it. 

In the spirit of Mrs. Dalloway, which partially inspired it, A Single Man chronicles a day in the life of one character. This character is George, a middle-aged professor at a university in Southern California. George is British and George is gay, and these two aspects, but particularly the latter, make him something of an outsider. We see him alone, getting ready for his day: a succession of little domestic acts interspersed with his thoughts. He misses Jim, his partner, who's been dead for a year. He reflects on the suburban community from which he's an outsider. We see him on the freeway driving to the university. He has violent fantasies about various categories belonging to "The Establishment": thoughtless modernizers of the California landscape, homophobes, politicians eager to escalate the Cold War. (This takes place in 1962, right after the Cuban missile crisis.) We see him teaching and interacting with his students. We see him discussing the prospect of nuclear annihilation and contrasting, facetiously or not, the American and European ways of life.

Canon B

We have been thinking about the Canon, the Great Western Canon, quite a lot lately.

Part of it comes with our Classics Club member cards. Being a Classics Clubber seems to involve thinking about the classics - about what makes a classic classic, about our relationship with these books and why they still have the power to affect us - quite a lot. We know we're not alone in this because we've read a handful of very insightful posts on this topic lately, all from fellow Classics Clubbers. And this is the part that makes us grateful that we have the classics, that, no matter their faults, they still have something good and beautiful to give.

Part of it is the discomforting realization that our map has a lot of uncharted territories in it. Like a medieval map, it is full of "Here be dragons," "Here be lions," "Here be writers we never heard of." We had this feeling reading Martina's excellent post about Polish literature. We have it every time we read a book that seems to have slipped through the cracks of the Western Canon. We even have it reading less known works from famous authors. It's like a feeling of vertigo. It's not that we had missed something - we will never read all the famous works, anyway - it's that no one told us there was something to miss. And this is the part that makes us crave more than the Western Canon, that makes us want to discover new books and new authors.

And, finally, part of it comes from an occasional desire to throw away maps altogether. There was this paragraph recently on Electric Literature's tumblr that made us nod in approval. It's from Michael Cunningham recommending a neglected classic:
I’m urging you to experience something like what I did, in consenting to read an obscure novel, an experience that involved not only the discovery of the novel itself but the attendant realization that the world is host to such novels—call them the “invisible classics.” Call them “Canon B.” It makes for a richer, more fabulous sense of what might be out there, beyond the titles one read (or pretended to have read) in college.
We read this and we thought to ask you: do you know any invisible classics? Do you know any works that should receive more attention than they do? Any works that are from foreign literature and receive little or no attention in Canon A? It doesn't have to be that they are completely neglected (an academic out there is surely writing articles about them as you speak), but that you feel they are not popular enough. I myself wish that more people read Boris Vian and more people read James' The Ambassadors (which, admittedly, doesn't lack for critical acclaim).

So please share your favorite invisible classics with us. We're taking notes and building A Hitchhiker's Guide to Canon B (also known as a to-read list). 


Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Internet, I cheated. I wanted to wait until October to dive into the titles for Adam's LGBT reading event, The Literary Others, but brain is flesh and flesh is weak. So I caved in and the last two days of September saw me reading my first book for this event - Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And I have no regrets.

To start by addressing the most obvious question - yes, the book's title is a metaphor. Yes, it is exactly that transparent metaphor you're thinking of. Acting as if oranges are the only fruit and trying to impose that belief on others is the equivalent - in silliness, not toxicity - of acting as if only one set of values and one way of life are the right ones. And yes, oranges and all the ways in which they're really Symbols for Something Else (mostly traditional-to-fundamentalist Christian values and heterosexuality) feature quite heavily in the narrative. The effect is not as bad as you might expect.

Reading and Lingering

When I was little, I was a binge reader. If I found a book I liked, I'd read everything of its sort I could find. That's why I spent a few months at age seven reading a 50-book collection of folktales. That's why I read something like 20 Jules Verne books the following year. The faux-science bored me to tears, but I pushed through. This tendency persisted into my teenage years. Every time I liked a book, I would go on to read more and more titles from that author. It was not always the best decision either. If someone could give me back the time high school Claudia spent reading that 5th and 6th Kundera novel, I'd invest it in...I don't know, but it would be something a lot less repetitive.

With all of these books - not just the tales, the Jules Verne, the Kundera, but most of what I've read in my life - I rarely, if ever, felt the need to reread. Like most fast readers, I would occasionally worry that I'm not reading well, that there is a proper way to read, which includes deep thinking about every sentence and naturally takes forever. But if there was, I simply didn't have it in me. I did think about what I read while I read it, but my thoughts were as fast-flowing as my reading and only a few of them lingered after the reading. Sometimes after finishing a book that had been thought provoking, I'd feel guilty for wanting to read another book immediately, so I imposed to myself a "mourning" period, in which to Really Think about the book I had just read. The longest time I mourned a book by thinking about it was probably a full day, most of which was comprised of watching TV. There was no turning me into a more grounded reader.

The last couple of years something changed. I now read fewer books, significantly fewer books, but spend a lot of time thinking about them and returning to them. It feels weird and it's, I'm afraid, not terribly fit for blogging. I'm pulled between reading new things and lingering almost obsessively over the stuff I already read. I still have things to say about Daniel Deronda. I haven't yet properly reviewed Ulysses, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it this summer and, more recently, circling an unfinished post about it. The other day, I discovered a quote I remembered liking in Wolf Hall was historically inaccurate. I feel like writing analyses of Eminent Victorians. And so on, the list grows.

I'm still trying to come to terms with this new way of reading. My reading speed is the same, it's just the lingering on a book after I'm done with it that's new. And since grass is always greener on the other side, especially after you jumped the fence, I wish I could go back to being a fast, untroubled reader.

Why am I telling you all this? As a partial excuse for the lack of blogging lately, but mostly as a warning that I might continue to talk about the same set of books for a long, long time. I have hopes that the Literary Others reading event will add some new books to my lingering pile next month. But if not, Ulysses, here I come!

William Faulkner's Drawings

Ah, internet, where did the time fly? We're sorry to have bailed on you like that, but September was a bad month for science (and pretty much everything else). But, seeing how today is William Faulkner's birthday and how all of our other plans to celebrate it didn't come through, we figured we could still share something a little unusual with you. Did you know Faulkner could draw? 

Between 1916 and 1925, William Faulkner contributed with (paid) sketches to the annual of the University of Mississippi, the University's newspaper and the University's humor magazine. We scanned some of them for you from a book called William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (which in the meantime we also found online, so sigh for our manually scanning these pictures). His drawings have a charming Jazz Age-y air about them and it's also quite likely that they were inspired by the style of 19th century artist Aubrey Beardsley (who rocks). Take a look at them below the jump and tell us what you think!

In Our Reading Lives

You may have noticed a distinct lack of Claudia and Alexis on the blog last week. That was because Claudia was too deep in the throes of Fretting About Life & Grad School to ramble about her reading and Alexis was busy moving house. While the aftereffects of fretting and moving are still being felt, we are back to blogging this week. Alexis has read The Language of Flowers and will talk about it soon(ish) and Claudia will be back discussing Henry James and whatever else strikes her fancy. If everything goes well, we hope to also launch a small side project this week, so keep your fingers crossed for us. 

But enough about our short-term plans. You might have noticed the pretty picture in our post. It's pretty self-explanatory. We signed up for The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event organized by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. We will be reading at least two books for this event (Giovanni's Room and Angels in America), but a lot of the titles on Adam's list appeal to us and we might have to start reading in September to cover more of them. We strongly encourage you to join. If you don't know what to read, there is an excellent list of recommendations on the sign-up post. It includes classics, contemporary fiction, YA, non-fiction, erotica, fantasy. You will definitely find something there to appeal to you. 


A Review to Remember

It's September, which means The Classics Club has another meme question for us to answer. And we have this one in the bag. Here's what we're supposed to do:
Pick a classic someone else in the club has read from our big review list. Link to their review and offer a quote from their post describing their reaction to the book. What about their post makes you excited to read that classic in particular?
As soon as we saw this, we knew exactly which review to choose. It's a review that really stood out the first time we read it, for both its enthusiasm and the wide range of details it managed to cover without losing steam or becoming boring. It's a review that made us really look forward to reading the book it discussed, no small feat considering this is a book we're more than slightly intimidated by. It's Emily's review of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf over at Reading While Female.

So what do we like about this review and why does it make us want to read Woolf? We like how it is specific, but not too specific. There is thread of enthusiasm and love for the book running through it and Emily offers just the right amount of details to support it. We understand why she loved the book: she offers enough examples and explanations for it to make sense. She talks about the characterization, the style, the themes and it's never just a vague pronouncement - 'These elements were good." - but always an explanation of why these elements worked, how they complemented each other, and what effects they produced on the reader. At the same time, it's not too detailed or spoiler-y. You don't feel like now you know everything about the book and there's no point in reading it. You feel like you were given a taste of the book and now you want more, which is very impressive considering the fact that the review doesn't contain a single sentence from Mrs. Dalloway. (Confession: a lot of reviews sell us on the books they discuss mostly through their Favorite Quotes section.)

Another thing that runs through this review and makes us trust the recommendation is the impression that the reviewer knows stuff, that their opinions are not only personal, but also well informed. (And this is something more Classic Club members share.) For example, we like the way Emily discusses some of the problematic aspects of this book as well (like the depiction of working-class characters). She does it by mentioning the general background (the problems modernism and early feminism have re: minorities and class), but also giving her own opinion on this particular book. It's a valuable insight we got from reading that post.

Okay, so this obviously turned into us reviewing a review and fangirling over it at that. Perhaps this was not entirely the point of the question, but this is what made us want to read this book. We will now end with a favorite quote and hope it will convince you to read the review and read Mrs. Dalloway:
Mrs. Dalloway is often hailed as one of the modern classics, and after reading it I can absolutely understand why. Woolf's use of style and structure serve to paint a picture of a woman, a truly human woman, complete with flaws and strengths, full of new hopes and failed dreams, and to show the people who come into contact with her throughout the course of a day. Despite the high literary style, it feels honest and uncontrived. The characters feel familiar, like the people you meet every day, and the feelings and thoughts they have could very well be your own. It is a beautiful, luminous, haunting book that will only improve upon rereading. I had a lot of expectations going in to this reading, and I am happy to say that Mrs. Dalloway exceeded them all.
Go read the rest here.

Why Do We Talk about Books?

I just had an Aha! moment. You know when you read a book that you really like and you call your best friend to say, "I just have to tell you about this book"? And how when you do tell them about the book, you're usually not satisfied with the result? It doesn't feel like you covered everything. You might have recounted it to them in excruciating detail, you might have described your reaction to every single paragraph, but something's still missing and you end up just saying, "It's so good. You just have to read it to see what I'm talking about." I do this all the time and never really questioned it. But now I stumbled across a passage that explains wonderfully why we feel the need to do this, but also why we always fail and have to send our friends to experience the book on their own:
This entanglement of the reader is, of course, vital to any kind of text, but in the literary text we have the strange situation that the reader cannot know what his participation actually entails. We know that we share in certain experiences, but we do not know what happens to us in the course of this process. This is why, when we have been particularly impressed by a book, we feel the need to talk about it; we do not want to get away from it by talking about it - we simply want to understand more clearly what it is in which we have been entangled. We have undergone an experience, and now we want to know consciously what we have experienced.
You will need a little background here. This is from Wolfgang Iser, whose stuff I'm slowly read at the moment (and it's a much pleasanter activity than I thought it would be). He's trying to describe what happens when you read a piece of good literature and he arrives at the conclusion that you get entangled with it. What does this mean? Well, a successful literary text will first draw you in under the guise of the familiar. You think you have an idea of what's going on in it, of where things are going. (If you don't have any idea at all, engagement with the text might be too difficult for you to even bother. See most readers and Finnegans Wake.) You inevitably form some expectations, some preconceptions based on your background, culture, previous experience etc. And then a good text challenges those expectations. In one way or another, things just don't go exactly as you anticipated. And this happens again and again in the course of your reading, as you form new expectations based on the new stuff the text throws at you. (Which is very good, because if this didn't happen, you'd have a yawn-fest on your hands.)

So what happens when you read a good book is that your preconceptions are continually overtaken, and, as you let go of them, you start to experience the text itself. The book becomes your present. You don't just read it, you become entangled with it and changed by it. That is the magic of good literature and it does make sense that you would want to understand it by capturing it in words. It makes sense you would want to share it. But it also makes sense that you'd fail at this task. You can't really capture the sense of living in the present of a book. If you're very good, you can give someone a wonderful representation of what it was like to experience a book, you can explain what elements in the book allowed for this experience, but you can't give them the experience itself. That's why you end up sending them to the book instead.

But another interesting corollary of this is that you can't really have access to that experience either. You can remember what it was like to read a text, but you can't read it again and have the same experience. Just the fact that you now know how it ends will change the way you read it, will change your preconceptions and expectations. (The text can still surprise you, though.) So I guess that, if we accept all this, no man (or woman) ever reads the same book twice.


Review: The Story of a Year by Henry James

Genre: short story
Published: 1865 (March)
Available online: here

I've been really unfocused lately. I am moving along in my Know Your James project faster than I feel like reviewing. And I do want to review because I fear I will just forget everything if I don't. I am half-assedly reading some literary theory. I struggle with my post on Villette, because it's just one of those books that give me feelings. More feelings than I know how to express. And on top of this, I will soon need to write boring papers on boring topics for school. But one thing at a time: let's focus on James' second published story. 

I think I would have happier with this being James' first effort. It's not that I didn't appreciate some of the elements of A Tragedy of Error, because I did, but I just couldn't understand what made James publish it, what made him look at that material that could have been improved in so many ways and decide it was something he wanted the whole world to see. It just wasn't a piece to write home about. I do understand why he'd choose to publish this second story, though. The writing is more polished; the plotline more developed; the meaning, I think, subtler. 

John and Elizabeth and two young people that get engaged during John's leave from the Union Army. From the beginning, it is clear what the pattern of their relationship is. John is the reasonable one, the adult, and Elizabeth looks up to him. When John tells her he might die in the war, she replies with "Oh, my dear friend! [...] I wish you could advise me all my life." It's really a telling statement. She's saying she wants him to live, but the phrasing also hints at a need for guidance. Elizabeth's found in her fiancé an incentive to be good:

Confessions of a Recovering Grammar Nazi

This is the story of how I realized I was a Grammar Nazi. It was a very distressing realization, although in retrospect some of the signs were there. I did not think I was a Grammar Nazi, but… Had I ever told people that their “loose” should lose a vowel? Yes. Had I ever passive-aggressively shared witty posters about the pitfalls of misusing “their,” “they’re” and “there”? Yes. ‘It’s” and “its”? Yes? “You’re” and “your”? …yes? “Affect” and “effect”? No! (I just roll my eyes dramatically at that one.)  But – my poor heroic self revolted - I wasn’t doing all this to be a Grammar Nazi! I was doing it to save people from the Grammar Nazis.

You see, I don’t mind someone slipping up and writing “too” instead of “to.” It doesn’t change my opinion of them. It doesn’t take away from the content of their writing. It doesn’t make me feel superior, since this and much worse happens to me all the time. (And, Murphy willing, will probably happen in this very post.) What I feel is basically that mixture of sympathy and social awkwardness you get when you notice someone has something in their teeth. You know they didn’t do that on purpose. You know they are not aware of it. You know they would like to become aware of it and fix it before all those pesky Others laugh at them. But would they appreciate you bringing it to their attention? Especially if “you” means “complete stranger on the subway”?

And therein lies the problem. I used to correct people. Not on a regular basis, but I would sometimes send them private messages, if it was possible, or even comment publicly if PM was not an option and the situation was desperate. (Take “desperate” to typically stand for “typo-induced hilariously dirty meaning.”) And I did it to save them from the embarrassment of being laughed at by the Grammar Nazis. We all know them, those persons that seem to have not a love, but a fetish for spelling and grammar. Or perhaps they just have a fetish for always correcting people, circumstances be damned, and grammar is their weapon of choice. In any case, what I realized was that I was indistinguishable from them.

To those people that I wanted to save from the embarrassment of being called out by a stranger, I was the stranger embarrassing them. Nothing worse was going to happen to them. There is no Sacred Body of Grammar that we have to defend at every opportunity. (And if there is, there are better venues and better ways to wage that battle.) And if protecting people’s feelings was the point, then the best way to do that was by shutting up. My well-intentioned behavior amounted to a good cop, bad cop routine. “I'm your friend, but do fix your typos before the bad Grammar Nazis get their hands on you!”

It’s difficult to get over the urge to fix texts, especially if you convinced yourself that you’re only doing it for the right reasons, but I stopped. These days before firing off a benevolent grammar comment, I ask myself, “Are you doing this only to make sure no one else is petty enough to do it?” If the answer is yes, I sit on my hands. 

Review: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

For both black and white American writers, in a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive.
The idea that there is nothing default about our default values is not a new one. It's been a theme in some philosophical circles for more than a century and a half now. We build ourselves by excluding others. (I guess I should write "Self" and "Other," but the meaning comes across quite nicely without that convention.) We define ourselves by opposition, by contrast. We are not like [insert your group of choice here]. Our values reflect how unlike them we are. We like to tell ourselves that we oppose a group because of our diverging values, but very often opposition came first: we arrived at our values with it in mind. We arrived at our values through it, because of it. But although this division was at the very basis of our identity, it can be pretty difficult to become aware of it. Especially because, if the identity-building exercise was successful, the others were probably excluded or silenced as a result. We cannot rely on their testimony to help us trace our identity.

This is pretty much the basis of Toni Morrison's project in this book. The American literature (and the American national identity) developed around a series of themes. Everyone knows them, but let Morrison sum them up again: "individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figurations of death and hell." Since other groups were disenfranchised for much of this process, it is assumed that these themes were created by white writers for a white audience, with little or no input from the Others, in this case the black population. But is it that simple? You can tell by my capitalization of the word "others" that it's not. Morrison argues that the American literature defined itself as a coherent entity precisely as a reaction to an abiding and unsettling black presence. Behind its famous themes, one can discern the background of racial tension that made them possible.

Our Favorite Classic Book

The Classics Club asked a question and we were not sure we'd be able to answer. The question should have been an easy one - What is your favorite classic book and why? - but then there's two of us and we both have a pile of favorite classic books (that you can admire in the sidebar of our pages). Narrowing down our lists of favorites looked close to impossible, so we figured we'd skip this meme. But then we remembered that there is one classic that we both love and that is a fairly good representation of what unites us at this point. That book is The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.


As readers we are not very similar. Not only that we have very different reading styles (Alexis - slow and thorough, Claudia - fast and... less than thorough), but, beyond the loose label of "classics," we tend to appreciate different books. And yet we rank The House of Mirth the same. We love it for its elegant writing. We love it for its heroine, poor tragic Lily Bart. We love it for its depiction of 19th century society. And we love it for the memory of that time when Claudia unwittingly spoiled it for Alexis by saying, "Oh, you're reading The House of Mirth? I cried at the end."



Review: A Tragedy of Error by Henry James

Genre: short story
Published: 1864 (February)
Available online: here

Discovering a hitherto unknown work by your favorite author has to be one of the most amazing things that can happen to a person. It is what happened to Leon Edel, Henry James' biographer and the guy who unearthed this short story, James' first published work of fiction. A Tragedy of Error was published anonymously in 1864, in the Continental Monthly, a publication that gave up the ghost shortly after that. Given these circumstances, and the fact that James was not proud of this piece and only referenced it obliquely in his memoirs, it is not very surprising that it remained unknown till 1953. And it sort of makes one wonder what other treasures are out there waiting to be found. (Byatt Quote of the Day? "Literary critics make natural detectives," natch.)

In any case, I am here to bring you good news and bad news about this story. The bad news is that 21-year-old Henry James was not the best of writers. The good news is that 21-year-old Henry James was not the best of writers. I don't know about you, but I find the idea of my literary hero having to work for his greatness very... reassuring. I might have felt differently if A Tragedy of Error was laughably bad. It is not. It is a story with a lurid plot: an unfaithful wife learns that her husband is soon to return to town. She hires a boatman to wait on him when he disembarks and kill him, but the boatman gets the wrong man and ends up killing her lover instead. But before you sneer at  it, this plot is somewhat redeemed by a series of elements that anticipate the later James:
  1. The dialogue: The center of this story and its longest episode is not what you'd expect. It's not the murder, it's not the series of errors that lead to the tragedy--it's the conversation between the lady and the boatman she hires. This is the scene we get to see in detail, the scene where a woman of high social status decides to hire a murderer and the way she brings it about. It is like James is saying: this, this conversation here, is what's interesting and illuminating. Not the murder, not the adultery, but the moral transaction that leads to them or results from them. And the conversation itself does have a certain flow and subtlety that the rest of the story lacks.
  2. The narrator's perspective: One of the most striking scenes in this short story is one where Hortense, the unfaithful wife, returns home in a shock, having received the telegram that announces her husband's arrival. She goes into her room but we don't get to follow her there. Instead we stay with a servant that watches her through the keyhole, sees her drinking and concludes she must be very upset. Why this artifice? It is because James' narrator is always tied up to a character's point of view, always limited. If there's no one watching, narration is impossible. And it's important who is watching too. James might have used Hortense here as his reflector, but then that would have compromised the whole effect of the moral conversation with the boatman. We needed to see Hortense's actions but be screened from some of her thoughts. That's why James needs the servants in this story.
  3. Beauty and morality: This will be one of the major Jamesian themes later: how the unity of goodness and beauty is broken, how sometimes beauty serves to disguise immorality. It appears here as well: "It was perhaps fortunate for Hortense's purpose at that moment—it had often aided her purposes before—that she was a pretty woman. A plain face might have emphasized the utterly repulsive nature of the negotiation."
Is this what I expected when I signed up to read the complete Henry James? Yes and no. No, in that I was expecting everything he wrote to be perfect and this is not even close to it. Yes, because I wanted to trace his evolution as a writer and I expected to find some elements of his later work in an embryonic phase from the first story, and that did happen. So, overall I am pleased with this beginning. 


Know Your James

At the end of this month I'll have to decide what I want to study for the next 2 years, possibly 5, possibly my whole life. I don't want to do it. I can't properly explain how much I don't want to do it. So instead of agonizing over choices and all the ways in which they could go wrong, I have decided to do something fun, something to take my mind off things and give me the illusion of a purpose. I am reading Henry James from beginning to end.

Below is a list of his works that I put together from the Blackwell Companion. I will check it against this list as well. There are some differences, most of them coming from the fact that my list has the works in the order they came out, regardless of whether they were published in a newspaper or in book form, but if there are stories I missed I will add them. I will be reading through this list and updating as I go. I already read most of the novels, but rereading is always a joy. It might take me a long time to reach the end, but I hope to stick to it. 

I guess there's more to this than sheer escapism too. I love the internet, but sometimes I feel that it's pulling me in a hundred directions at once and throwing bits of knowledge at me faster than I can digest them. (It is also the only thing that makes this project possible, so don't think I'm bashing it.) I want to read something methodically and really get to know it. So James it is.

The List

1864 - A Tragedy of Error
1865 - The Story of a Year
1866 - A Landscape Painter, A Day of Days
1867 - Poor Richard
1868 - The Story of a Masterpiece, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes
1869 - Gabrielle de Bergerac
1870 - Travelling Companions
1871 - Watch and Ward, A Passionate Pilgrim, Master Eustace
1873 - The Madonna of the Future, The Sweetheart of M. Briseux
1874 - The Last of the Valerii, Mme de Mauves, Eugene Pickering
1875 - Roderick Hudson, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales, Transatlantic Sketches
1876 - The American
1877 - Four Meetings
1878 - French Poets and Novelists, Daisy Miller, An International Episode, The Europeans, Longstaff's Marriage
1879 - The Pension Beaurepas, Confidence, A Bundle of Letters, Hawthorne
1880 - Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady
1882 - The Point of View
1883 - The Siege of London; Daisy Miller: A Comedy, Portraits of Places
1884 - A Little Tour in France, Lady Barbarina, Pandora, The Author of 'Beltraffio', Georgina's Reasons, A New England Winter, The Art of Fiction
1885 - The Bostonians, Princess Casamassima
1888 - The Aspern Papers, Louisa Pallant, The Reverbator, The Liar, The Modern Warning, A London Life, The Lesson of the Master, The Patagonia, Partial Portraits
1889 - The Tragic Muse
1891 - The Pupil, Brooksmith, The Marriages, The Chaperon, Sir Edmund Orme, The American: A Comedy in Four Acts
1892 - The Real Thing, The Private Life, Lord Beaupre, Greville Fane, Owen Wingrave
1893 - The Middle Years, Pictures and Text, Essays in London and Elsewhere
1894 - The Death of the Lion, Cotton Fund, Theatricals: Two Comedies, Theatricals: Second Series
1895 - The Next Time, The Altar of the Dead, Guy Domville
1896 - The Figure in the Carpet, Glasses, The Old Things (The Spoils of Poynton), The Way It Came, The Other House
1897 - What Maisie Knew
1898 - The Turn of the Screw, The Awkward Age, In the Cage, The Covering End
1899 - Europe, The Real Right Thing, Paste
1900 - The Great Good Place, Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie, The Tree of Knowledge, The Abasement of the Northmores, Maud-Evelyn, The Faces, Broken Wings
1901 - The Beldonald Holbein, Mrs. Medwin, The Sacred Fount,
1902 - The Wings of the Dove, Flickerbridge, The Story in It
1903 - The Ambassadors, The Beast in the Jungle, The Birthplace, William Wetmore Story and His Friends
1904 - The Golden Bowl, Fordham Castle,
1905 - The Question of Our Speech, The Lesson of Balzac, English Hours
1906 - The Speech of American Women
1907 - The American Scene
1908 - Julia Bride, The Jolly Corner
1909 - Italian Hours, The Velvet Glove, Mora Montravers, Crapy Cornelia, The Bench of Desolation
1910 - Is There a Life after Death, A Round of Visits
1911 - The Outcry
1912 - The Novel in ‘The Ring and the Book’
1913 - A Small Boy and Others
1914 - Notes of a Son and Brother, Notes on Novelists
1915 - The Mind of England at War
1916 - Ivory Tower, The Sense of the Past
1919 - Within the Rim and Other Essays

Start Here: A Reading Pathway to William Faulkner

As many of you know by now, I love William Faulkner. As only some of you know, I would love to organize a small Faulkner celebration in September/October. (Would you join us? Say yes!) So, in order to give you some idea of what to read for this event and because I've always wanted to write such a post about Faulkner, I’m entering Book Riot’s START HERE Write-In Giveaway. This means I will highlight a "reading pathway" for you: a sequence of 3-4 books that could get you started on Faulkner. ETA: I have added a link at the end of this to another entry from the same contest - a So You Wanna Read William Faulkner flowchart; it is made of awesome so make sure to check it out.


There is no easy answer to the question “Where should I start with William Faulkner?” That’s not because there is no good place to start, as some Faulknophobes would have you believe, but because there are as many answers as there are readers. Finding the right book to start you off would ideally involve figuring out your profile as a reader first. Do names like Woolf and Joyce bring a smile to your face? Then As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury are the titles most likely to hook you. Southern Gothic is your genre of choice? A Rose for Emily or the frequently (and unjustly) sneered at Sanctuary could be your gateway drug to Faulkner. If you’d rather go for a strong narrative with a dash of good old Southwestern humor, try The Hamlet or Faulkner's last and utterly charming novel, The Reivers. If you’re a fan of Harper Lee, you’ll love Intruder in the Dust. But perhaps you’re after a grittier picture of the segregated South? Then give Light in August a try. (And if you want all this and more, you are a. wonderful, b. crazy and c. looking for Absalom, Absalom.)

But if none of these labels describes you, or if you just want to discover Faulkner as he is, not Faulkner as he’s most likely to appeal to you, what should you read? Well, gentle generic reader, here’s the reading pathway I’d suggest for you.

Start with Light in August

Among Faulkner’s novels, Light in August has a special place in that it is an undisputed masterpiece, but also quite readable. The narrative is not completely linear and there is some stream of consciousness sprinkled in there, but you should be able to follow the story with minimal effort. Think of it as training for the puzzle-solving activity Faulkner will demand of you later. In the meantime, get acquainted with Yoknapatawpha, the fictional Mississippi county in which Faulkner set most of his novels, and get a sense of his favorite themes. Almost everything Faulkner has to offer stylistically and thematically is present in this book: humor, gore, suspense, wonderful descriptions. Make a note of the parts you liked best. They're a pretty good indicator of which Faulkner novels you're likely to enjoy. For example, I loved Reverend Hightower’s reminiscences—long, yearning sentences that you read holding your breath. This is by far my favorite of Faulkner’s techniques, so I usually gravitate towards novels where it’s heavily used (like Absalom, Absalom).

Take a detour through The Unvanquished

Though not one of Faulkner’s masterpieces, The Unvanquished is an accessible book that can further familiarize you with his style, and, more importantly, it gives you a very powerful key to understanding Yoknapatawpha and its inhabitants: the Civil War mythology. Most of Faulkner’s characters are in some way shaped by this legacy. Quentin Compson is even described at one point as not a being, but a "barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts.” Start by meeting the ghosts before you meet Quentin; you’ll understand him better. (That's also why I chose this book as your second stop over the superior As I Lay Dying.) The Unvanquished also introduces several Yoknapatawpha families. If any of them catches your eye, look up their books next. The Sartoris take center stage again in Flags in the Dust; the Snopes in The Hamlet trilogy; the McCaslins in Go Down, Moses. Faulkner’s world is deeply interconnected and half of the fun is getting to explore these ties.

Get thyself a character list and/or tackle The Sound and the Fury

We’ve finally reached it: one of the best novels ever written and the book Faulkner felt “tenderest toward.” My advice is to read this one twice. Don’t obsess over piecing it together the first time. Let the language flow over you; let the story come to you on its own terms. It most likely will, at least in its general lines. You can read Faulkner’s Appendix or the wikipedia entry afterwards and it will all fall into place. Revisit it then and savor it fully. Would it help if you were already used with this style, say from making an additional detour through the shorter As I Lay Dying? It might, but in all honesty the thing that can best prepare you for reading The Sound and the Fury is...reading The Sound and the Fury. But if investing enough in a book to read it twice is just not your style, get a character list from the start. It's not very difficult to figure out what happens, once you understand that multiple characters have the same name.

Absalom, Absalom!

For a long time, I’d tell people to start Faulkner with this book: sink or swim. It has a reputation for being dense, dark and challenging. It can be all of these things. It is also deeply rewarding and quintessentially Faulkner. If something in Faulkner touched you, if you were intrigued by Quentin Compson’s fate or fascinated by Faulkner’s troubled and contradictory South, if you liked the rhythm of his sentences even when you had trouble keeping up, read Absalom, Absalom. Or just read it anyway--it would be a shame to miss it. It's the high point on which to end our William Faulkner reading pathway and it will hopefully inspire you to read more. And if you want more reading suggestions, check out this amazing flowchart. Trust me, it will answer all your Faulkner needs.

Mrs. Faulkner Tells It Like It Is

So we're working on something that has us very excited and so far it required me digging through my collection of scanned Faulkner interviews. (Yes, I have something that might be called a "collection of scanned Faulkner interviews." In my defense, I never claimed sanity.) There are a lot of awesome things in there (and a bunch of not-so-awesome stuff as well), but I just had to share this passage with you. It's from an interview Faulkner's wife, Estelle, gave in 1931. At the time Faulkner had recently published These 13, a collection of short stories including A Rose for Emily. Here's what Mrs. Faulkner had to say about that:
I don't think Billy writes such good short stories, Mrs. Faulkner said. I don't think he understands them. Novels? Now that is different. I think his best work is As I Lay Dying--that is his best work so far. I believe his greatest novel is yet to come.

Did I understand Sanctuary the first time I read it? Well, that's hardly fair. No, I didn't. When we were married in 1928, he began what he termed my education. He gave me James Joyce's Ulysses to read. I didn't understand it. He told me to read it again. I did and understood what Mr. Joyce was writing about. 

Then I tried to read Sanctuary in manuscript form. I couldn't get the meaning. But the second time, with Ulysses for a background, it wasn't difficult. I've read it a third time but I don't think it is his best at all.
The relationship between William and Estelle was a complicated one, and some of that comes through in this interview as well, but... Reading Ulysses twice to understand it? Faulkner being better suited for novels than for short stories? Sanctuary not being his best book? And this sentence, "with Ulysses for a background, it wasn't difficult," that just kills me and that I might have to add to every review of a difficult book I try to read? I think I love this woman.

ETA: Adding to the humor of this, in a 1932 interview Faulkner is quoted saying "I have never read Ulysses. Until recently I had never seen a copy." Then again, he was being asked if he'd been imitating Joyce's style in The Sound and the Fury and he did have a healthy dislike for telling the truth to probing interviewers.


Ode to Books Discovered by Chance

The books I love the most are the ones I discovered by chance. It is a realization I had revisiting Possession, where every page reminds me of the first time I read it, of my wonder and admiration then. It was a book I bought on impulse. I was somewhat familiar with Byatt: I had read two of her shorter novels and had conflicted feelings about them. Surprisingly enough, I hadn't heard anything about Possession. I bought it because it was on sale and it had a cute cover. It sat on my shelf for two years. And then one day I read it and was touched beyond expectation.

This is a story that repeats itself over and over again in my list of favorite books. I picked up The Ambassadors because it was dirt cheap. I had never heard of it and I was not in love with Henry James. I received Absalom, Absalom from my mother, who uh, bought it because it was on sale. I hadn't read anything by Faulkner and my mother doesn't have the greatest taste in books, so it's a wonder I even opened it. I found T.S. Eliot by buying a book for someone and reading the first poem in it because I was bored. I bought The House of Mirth in Germany because a. visiting foreign countries makes me buy books and b. it had a beautiful cover. I bought The Handmaid's Tale in Scotland in a '3 for the price of 2' deal together with Never Let Me Go and Beloved. (Without a doubt, the best spent £20 in my life.)  I picked up Middlemarch at the library because it was there. The name George Eliot didn't tell me much beyond "classic author," "woman with male pseudonym" and "not George Sand."

Henry James' Portrait Slashed by Suffragettes

It started in May, 1914. A small woman, dressed in stereotypical grey, entered the National Gallery and slashed Velásquez' 'Rokeby' Venus. She cut the picture in seven places with a meat chopper. Arrested, she explained she had destroyed the most beautiful woman in mythology to protest against the way the world was treating the most morally-beautiful woman in recent history, militant activist Emmeline Pankhurst. Would the art-loving public condemn her gesture while they allowed injustice towards real women to stand? Then they were hypocrites, for "justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas."

There is something very powerful about this image. 'Rokeby' Venus, slashed by Mary Richardson