2013: The Reading Year in Review

It is December 31, 2013, and I am exhausted. Twelve hours ago, at four in the morning, I finished my fortieth and final book of the year.

On January 1, 2013, I created a GoodReads Reading Challenge goal of 2 books per month, plus one book each month for my monthly book club—a total of 38 books. I created some challenges for myself within that: create space on my bookshelves, finish reading the novels by Jane Austen that I hadn’t read, read every novel by the Brontë sisters, and finish Nicholas Nickleby after months in limbo. I have done all of these things.

So here’s a brief rundown, broken down into different categories because I’m a weirdo like that (counting each book just once):

Books read for book clubs: 7

Novels by Jane Austen: 3

Novels by Charlotte, Emily, or Anne Brontë: 7

Novels by Charles Dickens: 1

Number of graphic novels: 2

Number of 20th century novels in the vein of classics: 4

Number of books I read for review or research purposes: 5

Number of contemporary/commercial novels:  4

Number of short story collections: 7

Plus a couple of shout-outs. First, my trusty book mark. When I first started (and failed to finish) Nicholas Nickleby at around 16 or 17, I picked up a paint sample in the shade Tea Cup. When I started Nicholas Nickleby again at the age of 24 in the fall of 2012, the sample was still there. It has been my bookmark in every book I’ve read this year.

Yep. Huge book weirdo.

Yep. Huge book weirdo.

Secondly, to my trusty marking pen. I don’t mark up every book I read, but annotating helps me focus. I have used the same color and type of pen since college and this one is like three years old. I need to find a place that sells them locally.

Photo 102

Not pictured: much needed haircut.

So what’s next? Well, I’m participating in a staff reading challenge at one of my jobs and I need to get moving on that, I need to actually look into the grad school thing instead of just talking about it, I have some volunteer training I need to study for, plus meet-the-author events, book clubs and discussions…so maybe reading that many books again in 2014 won’t be that hard.

I want to dig a little deeper into the pros and cons of doing a GoodReads challenge, so if you did one or refuse to do one or just set a non-GoodReads goal, please leave a comment!

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Villette Punched Me Right in the Feels

Warning: Spoilers for Villette possible, but it’s really late and I’m really cracked out so I don’t know if they’ll even be in there.

I tried and failed to finish Jane Eyre several times before I finally did. And whenever I’d angst on Facebook over the fact that I was getting nowhere or whatever, one of my friends from college would say Villette was better and Lucy Snowe was a better narrator. Others would chime in as well from time to time and sing praises of the novel.

Now I have also read Villette and I think I mostly understand what all the fuss is about. While Jane Eyre is a Gothic romance, and Jane Eyre herself is almost always at a rolling boil, Villette is a much more realistic novel, and Lucy Snowe has strong emotions but typically remains much more reserved. If Lucy Snowe had been stuck with Aunt Reed, I don’t think she would have gone quite to “YOU’RE DEAD TO ME.” But Lucy is rarely mistreated the way Jane is either—at their worst, the other characters annoy her, but she just keeps rolling along.

The basic summary of Villette is very similar to that of The Professor, since the former is basically a re-telling of the latter: an English national’s experiences abroad as a teacher in Brussels (or a fake version of Brussels called “Villette” in a fake version of Belgium called “Labassecour”). But while I pretty much hated The Professor, I really enjoyed Villette. I don’t think the male perspective suits Charlotte Brontë well—she really shines for me when she presents these proto-feminist, complex, emotional characters. And it’s nice that she lays off the phrenology talk and extreme hatred of Europeans and Catholics (like…why did you even go to Europe, William Crimsworth?). There are plenty of lol-worthy trashings of popery, Romish wizardry, etc., mind you.

Given that most people know Charlotte Brontë for Jane Eyre, I was surprised by the more realist mode of Villette. There are some Gothic elements: a couple of storms, creepy Catholic castles, a nun’s ghost—but these are all dealt with in a very straightforward manner and the novel eschews supernatural explanations in the end. For the most part, Jane Eyre offers pretty rational explanations of bizarre goings-on, but the feel of JE is different; much friendlier to the unexplained. I was also surprised by the pretty broad social world of Villette: Lucy does spend a lot of time in more or less social isolation, but there’s a whole cast of characters running around her at almost any given moment. In fact, she often has to go to great lengths to seek solitude.

Truthfully, I wasn’t a big fan of the romantic subplots—but I never am. There were really two: Lucy becomes very close with the handsome young Dr. John, but he keeps becoming enamored of younger, prettier, richer women. Then there’s also M. Paul Emmanuel, one of the other teacher’s at her school. The two of them….uh….enjoy one of those we-hate-each-other-or-do-we routines that are so popular in contemporary romantic comedies. Neither of these men are as dashing (or as creepy) as Mr. Rochester, but without them Lucy would almost never leave the grounds of her school, so there you have it. I had kind of a literary crush on Dr. John, but in my defense he sounded pretty hot.

I’m really not entirely sure how to comment on this novel to be honest. There were times when my eyes glazed over, but there were also those Jane Eyre-like moments where I thought, “MY GOD I AM LUCY SNOWE!” And I’ll admit some of the novel kind of creepily coincided with my own life: I’m emotional but no-nonsense at the same time, I spend a lot of time alone, I sometimes feel overlooked, and I have pretty strong moral convictions. But there were even weirder things: there’s a scene where Lucy finds the director of the school pawing through her personal belongings—a scene I read on the very same day I discovered my own landlord had put a bunch of food in my fridge while I wasn’t home without asking me (that’s another story for a different blog).

As usual, the way Brontë writes emotions resonated with me deeply. I’m hoping to do a pan-Brontë post when all is read and done, but for now I’m very tired and I work in the morning and kind of dazed from reading so much the past two days. So I will leave you with one of my favorite passages, in which Lucy and I had the same feelings:

My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast. Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil in reliance on future good. A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me — a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green fields, no palm-tree, no well in view. The hopes which are dear to youth, which bear it up and lead it on, I knew not and dared not know. If they knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn. When they turned away thus rejected, tears sad enough sometimes flowed: but it could not be helped: I dared not give such guests lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption. (225-6)

And with that….onto Agnes Grey!

Don’t Patronize Me, Bro: The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Professor by Charlotte Brontë.

If I hadn’t specifically stated so on this blog already, my goal before the end of the year is to read every novel by the Brontë sisters. As of December 1, I had three new novels to complete and I’d really like to re-read Shirley as well, since it’s the only novel I’d read before and I wanted to read it in light of the others.

Well it’s December 13 and I just finished my first one. And it’s the shortest one. And I have a lot going on. Whoops…But I’m still going to make a go of it and I think I can do it.

The Professor was Brontë’s first novel, and not published until after her death in 1857. In the interest of time, I skipped the introduction so I haven’t learned very much about it. From what I’ve gathered, though, most scholars consider it the seed of her later works, and I believe Villette (my next venture) is a re-telling of it in some way.

At first I thought about leaving The Professor till last because it was published last (and I didn’t own it yet). I’m glad I didn’t. I’ll admit, I found it pretty disappointing.

Brontë’s project with The Professor was to write a novel about ordinary, working people—a far cry from her most famous work, Jane Eyre. In pop culture, the Brontës—well, Charlotte and Emily—are known for their Gothic romances, the wild moors, the brooding Byronic heroes. All are absent from The Professor. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily. After all, when I read Shirley before I liked it, and I loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—both of which are known for their more realist modes.

The Professor was very obviously an early work, and not in a way I found charming the way I did Northanger Abbey earlier this year. The structure is pretty weird, there’s not much plot to speak of. The language was frequently passionate, but it seemed so reserved compared to Shirley Keeldar, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, even Helen Huntingdon.

I found the main character, William Crimsworth, the titular professor, to be kind of an ass-hat. Because I love British novels, I am well aware of nineteenth century England’s fear and hatred of Catholics and its xenophobia against the rest of Europe. And I’ve noticed a common thread through all the sisters’ works is this fascination with phrenology. In The Professor, all these elements are taken to extremes and it’s just weird. Crimsworth is an Englishman, who leaves a job at his brother’s mill to teach English in Belgium. He begins working at a school to teach English and all he does is deride nearly all of them. Everyone’s physical appearance is described in great detail. Anyone familiar with the nineteenth century knows a major hallmark of the literature of the era is to have characters whose outer appearances show their inner qualities. But in this novel, all are described to an obnoxious degree, and their shortcomings are not just individual, but metonymic of each girl’s country of origin and Catholicism. To a twenty-first century reader, it’s alienating and is so excessive as to become dull.

The female characters are interesting, but they’re not what I’m used to. The Directress of the girls’ school, Mdlle. Reuter, is whip-smart, but kind of a femme fatale. The love interest, Frances Henri, has pretty lofty career goals and is independent, but she only becomes interesting after ages of the kind of meek female goodness that I don’t find characteristic of Charlotte. The Brontë heroines I’ve loved so dearly weren’t present enough in this novel for me, perhaps because William was the focalizing character.

So, I’m sorry, fellow Brontë fans, but The Professor wasn’t my cup of tea. I’ve heard excellent things about Villette, though, and I’m excited to see how Brontë re-worked this early work into that.

Real Talk: Misogyny in Literature Gets My Goat

One thing that always held me back as an English major is that I sometimes let my emotions about literature run away with me. In fact, this is one of the key reasons I don’t think pursuing a Master’s Degree in English is a good path for me. If I don’t like something, I just don’t like it. It’s hard for me to analyze it because I get all plebeian about having to look critically at shit I hate.

One of my biggest literary pet peeves is literature that is hostile toward women. I went to a college with a required freshman course that surveyed the literature, art, history, and politics of the Ancient Greek and Roman empires. The wannabe scholar in me knows I should be able to keep Plato grounded in the horribly misogynistic context of his time, but I straight up hate reading that he thinks women will always be inferior to men. Not that I blame Plato for not being thousands of years ahead of his time (and that essay I linked to argues Plato was actually somewhat ahead of his time, so I’ll admit I may just be getting confused). It’s just damn depressing to read that some of the misogynistic crap I see every day has reaches back to what are acknowledged as some of the deepest roots in Western culture.

Misogyny is still a fact of literature. I’m not just talking about David “I’m Not Interested in Teaching Books by Women” Gilmour, or the fact that today’s (male) literary darlings don’t see gender bias in the world of publishing. I’m also talking about the fact that a lot of the most respected works in the twentieth century can be really alienating for women to read.

This week, Amanda Hess at Slate wrote about n+1‘s latest pamphlet, No Regrets, in which a group of female writers talk about formative experiences they had reading or not reading certain works. I haven’t been able to order No Regrets for myself, but what Hess had to say stirred something within me. (And the New York Magazine published an excerpt.) This portion in Hess’s article struck a particular chord with me:

Take Sara Marcus’ initial impression of Jack Kerouac: “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned. I was just like: ‘Fuck. You.’ I was probably 15 or 16. And over the coming years I realized that it was this canonical work, so I tried to return to it, but every time I was just like, ‘Fuck you.’ “
This has been my exact experience with trying to read On the Road. I was a senior in high school, I think, the first time. I found it too boring and sexist to continue. When I shared my thoughts with others, their responses were split along gender lines: most women agreed with me, most men said it was a great book. In college, I applied for a writing fellowship with a proposal that I roadtrip across the country. To start my research, I pulled out my copy of On the Road again. When my proposal was rejected, it was almost a relief to shut On the Road again. I had marked the places that mentioned women with Post-Its. There were a lot and every one made me feel like I needed a shower.

My disgust with On the Road is one example of many disappointments with twentieth century literary greats—and not just the ones Emily Gould calls “midcentury misogynists.” I couldn’t see Franny and Zooey through and gave up entirely on Catcher in the Rye. I know The Great Gatsby‘s Daisy Buchanan is supposed to be awful, but she’s really awful. Reading The Sun Also Rises infuriated me: I finished the book but I resisted it at every turn and it took me three weeks and I remember nothing but my hatred of Lady Brett Ashley. I would prefer that novelists skip female characters altogether than endure another flat female character treated as an object and a life-ruiner on the page—as Cormac McCarthy does in Blood Meridian, which I wrote my undergrad thesis on.

It sucks to feel like a bad student of literature when your personal feelings obstruct your analysis. In the not too distant past, I watched Midnight in Paris and bemoaned Rachel McAdams filling the role as “the shrieking harpie fiancée” on my Facebook page. One of my friends asked if maybe McAdams’s character was supposed to be ironic or somehow a statement on the tenuous nature of nostalgia or something like that (that status is now buried in a sea of other outrages). I’ll admit, I was kind of embarrassed that I’d been so rage-blinded when her character was onscreen that I didn’t delve into the reasons why.

One of the things I learned in school was to avoid the biographical fallacy and separate authors’ lives from their works like whites and yolks. Sometimes it’s really hard to do that, especially when you read some of the things these authors wrote or said, or when you learn that Norman Mailer stabbed his wife.

But when I read some of these so-called great works of literature, those attitudes are so obvious you can smell them coming off the page. It’s saying, “This is a work that the establishment says is great literature. Don’t you want to love great literature?” I do want to; I may even want to try again because I feel like I’m failing my duty as a student of literature by hating and avoiding them. But the perspective of so many of these great works is so exclusive I find it alienating. Hess and No Regrets describe it much better than I can, so here’s another long quotation to chew on:

Just by reading the book, the woman reader is forced to grapple with her relationship to being that girl, framed in opposition to the boy whose full story is being told. It’s not just that the roles of women are conscribed in the books, but that a woman reader is conscribed in the experience of reading the books (and her experience living in the world when the book is finished). The men who read them can easily slip into the role of “the deceptive, neurotic, charmingly flawed hero balancing competing claims for his affection … the bearer of narrative,” Emily Witt says, but women are resigned to “the role of the bovine female,” in the mind of the narrator and that of the reader, man or woman.
So for lack of a better conclusion, I’m glad No Regrets is out there to explore these feelings and I look forward to reading it and exploring this topic more in depth.