A Generic Patchwork Quilt

I haven’t been updating, but I have been reading. I don’t want this blog to become an abandoned project, but that’s also something that needs to happen for a number of reasons I’m not going to address.

Instead, here’s a bunch of mini-reviews of books I’ve read since I got to know half of the McKade brothers intimately. My reading has gone all over the place. In the order I read them:

Hondo by Louis L’Amour – I was supposed to read this for my undergrad thesis, but never finished it. I chose it as my staff reading challenge’s final book, the Western. Three years ago (eep!) I wrote said thesis about Blood Meridian and the first chapter of Hondo (Louis L’Amour’s first novel, which was actually a novelization of a John Wayne movie based on one of his short stories) was more than enough to demonstrate how Cormac McCarthy deconstructs tropes of the Western genre. I don’t really know what to say other than reading Louis L’Amour in a postcolonial context makes me feel pretty gross. Sexism, racism, imperialism…all your old friends are featured.

Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis – This year has gotten off to a rough start, and one thing that has comforted me during these troubled times has been the music of Joy Division. More than just the music, I watched the pretty-good fictional biopic, Control, and Jon Savage’s excellent Joy Division documentary. Touching from a Distance was written by Ian Curtis’s widow, Deborah. Written in a scattered, confessional style, I thought Curtis’s portrait of her husband—who committed suicide at age 23 on the eve of the band’s first American tour—was compelling. But it was also really depressing.

It’s not always the best thing to realize that the person who wrote the music that gets you through the day spent a lot of time mistreating his wife and exhibiting emotionally abusive behavior. In addition to extreme mood swings, Ian Curtis spent a lot of time toward the end of his life giving Deborah the cold shoulder—which made me wonder how her perspective of things would measure up to his if we could ever know it.

Also, no side of the Curtis story I’ve explored so far seems to give all sides a voice. On tour, Ian Curtis began an affair with a Belgian fan, Annik Honoré, while Deborah took care of their only daughter alone in England. Surviving members of Joy Division have said the events as portrayed Control is highly fictionalized and Deborah Curtis reportedly hated it. Jon Savage’s documentary features Annik as an interview subject and acknowledges her involvement in Ian Curtis’s life without divulging many details, whereas Deborah’s only voice comes from extracts of Touching From a Distance onscreen. And of course, Deborah is not exactly a fan of Honoré—and somewhere on the internet I found Honoré saying the book is untruthful. It’s not that Ian Curtis’s love life is that important to the story of Joy Division, it just gives the feeling that things are skewed or left out. Part of me wants to read bassist Peter Hook’s memoir of the band, but part of me wants to just listen to the music without context.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – I participated in a book group on Housekeeping this spring. My repertoire is pretty devoid of twentieth century lit, especially that from the postmodern era. Housekeeping was a really lovely read, though. It’s ethereal, poetic, impactful, and not at all what I was expecting.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton –  Adventures in Contemporary Lit brings us to this 800+-page tome that captured the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I have a lot of complex thoughts and feelings on The Luminaries, but I’ll keep it short: Catton’s ability to plot is nothing short of masterful. However, her emulation of Victorian style kept me at arm’s length as a reader—the opposite of my experience reading actual Victorian authors like Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc. The enormous pantheon of characters made the novel feel stretched thin to me; that is, I had trouble feeling close to any character. The resolution felt a little neat to me, and while throughout the text I appreciated the rehashing of the immensely complicated plot, it felt like that distracted the book from the depth I was searching for. Overall, good but not great—and it took me four months to get through.

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot – Another author I’m ashamed not to have read is James Joyce. Here we have Talbot’s memoirs of growing up as the child of an eminent Joyce scholar intertwined with the biography of Joyce’s own daughter, Lucia. As far as graphic memoirs go, the only one I’ve read was Alison Bechdel’s peerless Fun Home, a dense, complex, and beautiful work. Unfortunately, when Fun Home sets the bar, Talbot’s shorter, sparser, divided work doesn’t measure up. After reading it, I only want to re-read Fun Home and pick up Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? Oh yeah, and James Joyce was a dick. Anyone famous is a dick.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King – Winner of the Michael L. Printz Honor Award, I decided to pick up this novel after John Green’s superhit The Fault in Our Stars left me cold. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is about the daughter of teen parents in a nowhere town trying to move on after her best friend’s betrayal and subsequent death. This book was pretty good, but it was only halfway there compared to how I remember feeling about some of the YA lit I read when I was a teen. Also, while John Green’s characters are philosophically pretentious, King is guilty of dropping Sonic Youth references, which can be just as bad even if I have loved Sonic Youth since I was the characters’ age (+50 indie cred points). I liked the main character because social outcast characters are my catnip and the fact that there were plenty of burnouts, skinheads, and other unsavories. However, some of the devices (multiple perspectives, the “evil burnout” trope, an abundance of “destiny talk”) just didn’t work for me. I want to get lost in a book, not feel like it’s trying to mask its Very Special Episode-ness or feel like the main character is too clever to be real. That’s been my problem with my recent attempts at YA lit.

The Good House by Ann Leary – Library displays really do work and books are designed to be judged by their covers. I picked this novel up on a whim. It’s the story of Hildy Good, a townie on Boston’s North Shore who is also a recovering alcoholic, divorced real estate agent in her 60s. I liked that the main character was an older woman, and in spite of myself I liked her descriptions of the East Coast-ness of the town and growing up in its East Coast-ness. I’ve spent a tiny bit of time in New England and have very mixed feelings about the place overall, but I liked the way Leary painted it from the perspective of someone who had an ancestor hanged in Salem. (Sorry, East Coast readers, but from my observations it sometimes seems hard for your part of the country to get that people come from other places that are different.) But I felt like some of the other characters involved in the main plot fell flat. Overall, reading this novel felt like eating at the Black Eyed Pea: it wasn’t bad and it’ll do for the day, but I’ll never think about it again.

So yeah. Like a poorly coordinated potluck, I have sampled so many types of literature and have been overwhelmingly disappointed by my findings. But so far, I’ve finished 15 books out of my goal of 40 for the year.

I’ll try to be better about updating over the summer.

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The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Inspiring and Overlooked

I have lived in the Denver Metro Area my entire life. I was born and raised in the Mile High City’s white-bread suburbs and today I live in Denver itself. I lived out of state for four years when I was in college and I found myself missing Denver. I thought it might be a grass-is-always-greener type deal, but after college I’ve realized that I love

I am a Denver nerd. I hope to learn more about the local history, but for now I have a decent working knowledge of the neighborhoods, and have checked out a whole book on its street logic. One of the most fascinating historical figures ever (in my opinion) happens to hail from Denver. Well, not originally, but that was where she spent most of her life and bought a house that is now a museum devoted to her life—and that means dispelling myths about the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” known from Broadway and Hollywood.

Margaret Tobin Brown never went by “Molly” in her life. That’s one of the first myths Kristen Iversen dispels in her definitive biography, Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth. So many of her portrayals have her as a backwoods socialite, an uncouth woman whose New Money couldn’t buy her manners. It’s a shame that she exists like a figure out of a tall tale, because she was really a fascinating person. James Cameron take note: Margarat’s surviving the Titanic was barely a blip compared to all the other things she did.

I don’t want this post to bore you with Margaret’s accomplishments (and I want you to learn about them for yourself, especially if you’re in Denver and can get to the museum). Let’s just say she didn’t sit idle on her millions once her husband struck gold in Leadville in 1893. Toward Progressive causes she leant both her fortune and her fighting spirit. Though often portrayed as nearly illiterate, she valued education and as an adult learned about art, literature, music, and theatre. She became fluent in five languages, which served her on her many world travels and as the person who stayed in New York after the Titanic‘s sinking to make sure all the third-class widows had a place to go. She helped found the first juvenile court system in the country; she fought for miner’s rights after the Ludlow Massacre; she was a great suffragist and the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate (before women could even vote!); she was a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I; and so much more.

I’m not much of a biography reader, to be honest. There’s no particular reason why not, just time I suppose. Here I’m talking about biography specifically, not memoir or autobiography. Perhaps some of that is due to the potential for slant or omission in a biography. I have read Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, which is both hilarious and very much exaggerated. I have also attempted to read Joseph Blotner’s two-volume biography of William Faulkner. The “condensed” version is around a thousand pages. I made it as far as Faulkner making the first grade honor roll and then I had to move on with my life.

I think it’s hard to strike a balance between creating a biography that’s interesting and also accurate. I really enjoyed Iversen’s portrait of Margaret. I think that she really sets Margaret in the context in which she lived. It helps that Margaret’s life seems as if it was rarely empty: when she died, she was teaching aspiring actresses in New York (and was one herself, as a lifetime fan of Sarah Bernhardt). There were a few times where I wished I had more information, but given the fact that Iversen spent eight years doing her research, I’m sure that little has been left out. I’m so glad the biography (and museum) exist to set the record straight about “the unsinkable Molly Brown” and I hope more people will continue to learn about her life.

Commenters: any biographies you’d recommend? I want to read some Brontë ones at some point but I don’t know when that will be.