Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Styling Bookcase Thoughts


I started writing a reply, but my thoughts are actually big enough for a whole post. In fact, this is a perfect time for this post as I recently did some rearranging when I went through looking for my TBR books. I find it's a good time of the year to cull out some for the donation pile.

The Current Situation
I have three (well four, I guess) basic shelving areas for books at this point in time.

Area 1: Oversize books are just stacked up on our mantle. We don't have a coffee table, so they end up here. Most of the ways to fix my current problems really involve buying more furniture, which is not currently in any budget...basically ever. I'm okay with this coffee table book stack for the most part because they're accessible and people could look at them if they wanted to.

Area 2: At some point a few years ago, probably to clear out room at home, I moved ALL of my poetry books to school. I don't know how I feel about this after reading Station Eleven. What if the superflu wipes us all out and someone comes through my house looking for poetry books, and they're all at work? Sigh. When I want to read poetry at home, I usually use the Poetry Foundation app. So..for now, they're staying at school. I try to keep all my teaching and work related books at school. Books for my grad school classes I keep at school when I'm done with them. I have tons of room at school, so I might as well use it!

Area 3: The holding area for TBR books. I've found it really useful to keep books I haven't read yet in one place. In theory, it's supposed to keep me from buying new books, but that hardly ever works. This is also where I put books that people let me borrow. If they stay there too long, I return them even if I haven't read them. As an aside, I generally don't let people borrow books anymore. Most of the time, if I give someone a book, I assume that I'm never going to get it back. It keeps me from giving away books that I might want to read again. You can see some TBR books in there!

Area 4: This is the biggest problem becomes readily apparent: I really *don't* have enough
bookcases for the number of books I have. Even with culling, I just am packing these shelves in. I don't have many knickknacks on my shelves, mostly because I don't have many knickknacks at all. But if I was artfully arranging things on those shelves, I'd have even *less* room!

As for their current arrangement, the top 3 shelves on each are fiction, and it just goes straight across the two rows. This is straight alphabetical, with paperbacks mixed in with hardcovers. I don't think I could do color because I have so many books by a same author, and it would drive me bonkers if they were all in different places. Graphic novels are together, although I don't have that many, so it's easy. The bottom 3 rows are non-fiction, and they're loosely organized by subject. So literary history, biographies, all the James Joyce is together. Then any science books, history, etc. The bottom left is all cookbooks. I mean, I hardly use cookbooks anymore, mostly the internet, so that be space I could reclaim at some point.

The Problem
I would LOVE to buy new bookcases (or get the dream!) As you can see, these are the fairly crappy Billy bookcases that I've had for at least ten years, but buying all new bookcases---even IKEA ones---would be too expensive. Here's one I've been lusting after for years. Wouldn't this look AMAZING in the place of the Billys? The problem with that is that I'd totally be buying it for the looks, but I'd have way less room for actual books. Therefore: no cool round bookcase. [PS. You can see I put a shelf on upsidedown when I was building the Billys. Look under the cookbooks. You can see the underside of the shelf is facing up. It's charming! Heh.]

I have thought a lot about moving these shelves, because this area gets lots of direct sunlight. It's not like my books are worth anything, but I can see how the spines are becoming faded. Sigh. The only books I actually moved are my Harry Potter books. Those are downstairs on the desk. As it is, even though we have a huge place, I don't have a whole lot of places for other bookshelves given the current furniture situation. I could have done it downstairs on that big wall, but it became the map wall, and I love that too much to give it up.

One look I really do like are lots of low shelves, and that's probably something I could get away with...but then we're back to buying bookcases, and that's just not going to happen anytime soon. Of the ones in the link you sent, this is my favorite. If I could have floor to ceiling bookcases, I'd do it in a hot second.

The REAL problem: Let's be honest: there are books stashed all over the house. I try to corral them upstairs and move them back onto the shelves, but they are *everywhere*. For some reason, I just keep buying them. And getting them from the library. And reading on my Kindle. You'd think I just loved reading or something!


"Styling" Your Bookshelf: Thoughts?

Dear Jenny,

I've been sick for a couple of days, so I'm catching up on blog reading (and a little bit of book-reading, but I find it difficult to read books when I am sick -- which is such a bummer!)

Last year, I bookmarked this blog post all about styling your bookcase. It's filled with book-y goodness, and I thought I'd bring it up here on the blog. Then I saw this post from last week about Beautifully organized home libraries and it seemed like the perfect time.

So... do you "style" your bookcases at all? I would say... yes and no. I guess I have a system, but it's not anything official (I mean, except in my own head).

I start by organizing by type/subject. These groupings are pretty broad. For "type," let's say... "fiction." Within fiction, I separate the paperbacks and the hardcovers. Then I arrange each of those groups in height order and color order, as best as possible. This gets wrecked if I have a lot of books by one author (more than 5?) -- then I group those together. (And then put them in color order.) (Of course.)

Oh, and I also have a shelf of "favorite" books that are grouped together, away from those others. (Of course.)

If there is a particular subject that we have a lot of books about (for instance, beer) (that wasn't hypothetical -- with a brewer in the house, we have a lot of books about beer), then I group those together and arrange them in height order (and color, whenever possible.) (Of course.)

Large "coffee table" books are stacked by size (and color, whenever possible). Here's a photo of our bookcases right after we bought them last year... I stack the big books on that narrow shelving unit in the middle:

Of course, these are not our only bookshelves... we've got books in the living room, on our coffee table, in the office, etc. These are our "main" bookshelves, I guess. When we moved from CA and the mover came to estimate the cost of our move, we went from room to room and he kept saying, "Oh! More books in here!" Never noticed before how many book stashes I had until that moment. Oh, yeah. More books in here!

I also have some sort of knick knacks on the shelves in front of the books, but when I worked at the library years ago, we pulled all of the spines to align with the front of the shelves and I gotta say... it might help with the shelf dusting situation (at least the dust would be behind the books, where I could not see it...) Opinions on this?

Having said all of that, I have been admiring bookshelves that are arranged entirely in color order for several years. Visually, I find this soooo appealing and I've been doing it on a shelf-by-shelf basis my entire life, so why not do the whole thing? Here's a post "in defense" of it (the comments are hilarious -- people take this topic so seriously!)

But... what if I am looking for that one book about beer? I have to remember the spine color of it first? Most of my books are fiction... perhaps I could just start with those.  Although... I need to keep my TBR shelf separate (at least, I feel like I do!) And, it's weird to me to think of interspersing my graphic novels with my other fiction. But maybe it's time to try it -- I can always put it back!

(Did you just read this post and think, "F*ck this noise. There are books and there are shelves. Put the books on the shelves. Why complicate this, weirdo?" Hahahaha.)


Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Rooster Crows!

Hey Kelly,

It's the most wonderful time of the year! Well, at least for me, and you know, if it wasn't winter. So, maybe just a shitty time of year but with an awesome thing to prepare for. Forget it. You know what I mean. At least Darrell gets it. He just said, "What are you doing? Homework?" And when I said that I was blogging about the Tournament of Books, he squeezed me and said, "It's your fantasy football." Aww... he totally gets me.

They released the short list last week, and here's my current situation regarding the 2015 TOB.


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This obviously is the book of the year. Everyone was talking about it and reading it. I just finished it today, and I very much enjoyed it. I wanted to keep reading it and I was looking forward to seeing what would happen. I liked the story, the writing, and its construction. I do wonder how I'm going to feel about it upon further reflection. There are certainly a few questions that I've immediately wondered about: what does it mean to have a hero that's a Nazi, but has neither interest nor disinterest in Nazi ideology? When there are multiple characters, is is okay for their narrative voice to be so similar? Either way, a good book and one that will be interesting to discuss. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone; it's a solid and well-crafted novel.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Honestly, there's part of me that hardly believes I read this book. As you know, I'm pretty squeamish about reading about rape. And, yet, this book called to me. I loved it, but it was so utterly harrowing, both for the physical torture Mirelle endures, and her even more painful, emotional recovery. I think this is an amazing book, and I wouldn't blame anyone ever for just not being able to read it.

Redeployment by Phil Klay
I heard the author of this book on Fresh Air one night as I was driving home from class. I thought it sounded pretty good even though I'm not a huge fan of short stories. Once it won the National Book Award, I was sure it would end up in the TOB (Although the Booker Prize winner didn't make it, which is sort of wild). I enjoyed it, far more than other Iraq books I've read. It's always hard to talk about a book of short stories, but I found this book to be careful and precise with its language in a way that masks the wild and untamed fury and fear of war.

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Oh, how I loved this book. This is more like a series of vignettes than a true novel, telling the story of a woman who gave up being an art monster for the pedestrian life of working mother. It was affecting and I can still remember lines months after reading it. I don't think it has much of a chance in the cutthroat forest of the TOB, but this was a brave little bird singing in a nest. I loved it.

A heartbreaker:
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
My friend and coworker Jeff recommended Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger to me a few years ago. I didn't love it, but it was an interesting enough book about a broken down house and the broken down family trying to keep it together. Jeff died last month, and I'll read The Paying Guests in honor of him. He was a voracious reader, and we loved to talk about books together. He was probably the only other person in my department who didn't give a hooey about highbrow or lowbrow reading, he just would read anything. He especially loved stories about the creepy and macabre people that hovered right on the edge of society. I'll miss him.

In the on-deck circle:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Has ever a book sounded so perfect for us? I got this from the library last week, and it's what's next.

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor
Picked this one up for $2.99 on Kindle last week. The only thing I really have to contribute at this point is that it's bothering me a bit, that storeys instead of stories. What's up with that?

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
I am super ambivalent about this, but I downloaded this one from Audible. As you know, I found the "come back for $3 for 3 months" plea impossible to ignore, but I'm a terrible, terrible listener. In Goodreads, someone recommended this audiobook. I'm going to give it a try, Kelly. Wish me luck.

Warming the bench:
Most of this group were books I've maybe heard mention of, or hadn't heard of at all. That means they're just going to have to hold until them come in at the library.

Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer
This one sounds sort of like the possible train wreck of the tournament, which I think only because someone on Goodreads said they finished it and they had no idea what they just read. I usually dislike those books (Ivyland and Green Girl), so I'm not hopeful for this one. Who knows?

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
I'm wary of this one only because I abandoned a previous novel by this author, The Book of Night Women. We'll see.

Adam by Ariel Schrag
A debut novel and a coming of age novel---This has hot fucking mess written all over it. I'm not sure what it is about this one that's not sitting well with me, it just sounds sort of awful. I hope I'm wrong.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
This sounds pretty interesting to me, so much so that I added it to my Amazon cart from the long list. It seemed I'd like it even if it didn't make it to the actual tourney. But there's a lot of things lining up before it.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
I like how this book made it in, the bookstore recommendation. But in general, I'm not so fond of the person alone in the wilderness novel. Unless a handsome stranger arrives and they fall in love. But since this isn't an 80s romance novel, I'm not super hopeful for that. *sigh*

What's up with the trilogies:
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
I can't imagine I'll get to this one since it's third in a trilogy, and I hear they aren't really stand alone novels. Oh well, I can't read them all, Kelly, no matter how hard I try.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
At least this is the first one! I'm interested in this trilogy, maybe because I find the cover art of the packaged trilogy to be compelling--the one with the red line and the feather?

Dead fucking last:
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
I'm not even going to *try* this unless a miracle happens. I just read Jacob de Zoet and I didn't love it, and even David Mitchell fans say this isn't his best work. I'm David Mitchell'd out, I think. Maybe I'll feel differently in March, but I doubt it.

I know you're going back to follower status this year, but are there any that seem interesting to you?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Kelly's 2014 in Review

Dear Jenny,

I realize that 2015 is now well underway, but I had intended to write this post at the end of 2014 and got waylaid and now I just want to do it anyway. So here I am!

What happened to me in 2014? Theory: ToB + Non-fiction

I got woefully behind this past year, both in reading my books and in writing about them. The reading, I think, happened early on in the year when I went all-out reading as many Tournament of Books books as I could, thereby pushing my TBR books to the bottom of the reading list for the first three months of the year.

As I've already said, that's not happening this year. It was fun in its own way, but I'm taking a break. If any of the ToB books strike my fancy, I may try to get to them before March, but I'm not racing to complete as many as possible again. It was too much, and then I burned out for at least another month after it was done.

Also... I had quite a few non-fiction books last year -- 7 out of 12 of my books! (I didn't realize Arc of Justice was not fiction until I started it...) I am not much of a non-fiction reader, so I struggled to write about those books (which means that I procrastinated and, when the end-of-the-year crunch hit, I was woefully unprepared). Only 3 of my books this year are non-fiction (well, as far as I know... apparently I am dumb and do not always notice!) so that should help.

Abandoning with Abandon = Success!

I also wanted to report on my plan to "Abandon with abandon" this year. As you know, I *struggle* to stop reading a book I am not interested in, but 2014 was my year -- I abandoned reading 13 books! And I didn't look back! (Well, until right now, cause I wrote them down so I could tell you about them... and also so that I would remember not to pick them up again. Heh.)

Aaaand... on a related note, let's have a moment of silence for one of those books that has been near and not-at-all-dear (apparently!) to me... Don't Know Much About History. This book first showed up on my TBR list in 2012 and after 3 attempts at it (even completing an entire chapter in 2014 and making a year-long plan!) I have officially dumped it. It's already gone -- donated to the library. I just couldn't get interested. Guess I will continue to not know much about history. Oh, well. Moving on!


To Be Perused (TBR): What's up with that?!

Oh, yeah... I had a whole other list -- art books to peruse! As I did a terrible job of keeping up with my TBR books, so TBP fell even further down on the To Be Done list. I did peruse one of them (Detroit Ruins) so I will write about that soon.

And, what the heck -- I'll post the list again for 2015. Perhaps this is my year? Or not... doesn't matter. It's our blog and I'll skip on my TBP list if I want to, list if I want toooooo....

My Favorites

I forgot that I listed my favorites of the year last year. I just checked my 2014 list to see if I had any that I really loved and yes, yes I did. Here they are:

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

You are familiar with this book, as it was on ToB. But besides just being a great book, this was also a terrific aBook/pBook combo pack -- I read the pBook and aBook together and I am so glad I did. The images in the pBook are fantastic, but the author herself reads the aBook and her self-editing throughout the book was so very interesting!

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This one is on the ToB list for 2015, so I imagine you will be reading it soon enough -- I am looking forward to discussing a couple of plot points with you, actually. I really liked this book... interesting, touching, suspenseful. Just a great read.


Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Have you read this book? I have seen the movie many times and this is totally a case where the book is so much better than the movie! While I did, of course, picture Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard the entire time I was reading it, I thought the story was so much more enjoyable, complex, and heartbreaking than the movie.


Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray

Oh, man. This book was kind of tough, but also funny and really good. After generally feeling like she is invisible for some time, this woman wakes up one day to find out that she is actually invisible. Aaand... her husband and kids do not notice! Ooof. I thought it was going to be super heavy-handed after that, but there is also a certain lightness to the book that makes it a truly enjoyable read while also being a commentary on a woman's status in the home and society.

Flat Out Love by Jessica Park

Have you read this? It's YA and pretty darned charming... much of it is  predictable, but the "flat out" elements are sweet and disarming. I loved the characters and didn't want it to end.

Heft by Liz Moore

This one was random and unexpected -- I think I got it for free or super-cheap as a Kindle deal and I didn't have any expectations. But I really, really enjoyed it. An extremely overweight recluse and an athletic teenager become unlikely friends through their shared connection: the teen's mom is the older man's former student. This quote from Amazon nails it: "It is a memorable, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive novel about finding sustenance and friendship in the most surprising places."

Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Well, I don't have to tell you anything about this book, cause I know you love it too. Another one that makes me grateful for the ToB. This one needs a re-read, I think!

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Spooky good. Really tightly written. Mystery, drama, general weirdness. Loved it. Have you read it? I'd recommend the pBook -- besides the awesome story, there is a lot to see.

Paper Towns by John Green

Another YA here --  I went on a little John Green odyssey this year and also read An Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska, which were also good. But this one has stuck with me, months after reading it. The characters and their emotions and reactions were achingly real.

The Numbers

And finally, the boring stuff: the numbers! In 2013, I read 100 books and I speculated that it was at the expense of not making things. But I am happy to report that in 2014, I read 101 books and I also made stuff! So yay! A big part of that is because, once again, about half of my books were aBooks (so I can listen while crafting). Same as last year, about a quarter were eBooks and a quarter were pBooks. Aaand... half of all of them were library books. The library is awesome!!

Thank you for indulging me on this retrospective. How was your year in reading?


Joint Book(s) 1.15: The Sandman (1-20)

Dear Jenny,

As you know, we are mixing it up this year, by reading four joint books together. The first of these is The Sandman (books 1-20). I suggested this "book" (which are actually books) and you concurred.  Sooo... why is The Sandman on my TBR list?

Basically, I am a bit of a graphic novel junkie and The Sandman is a classic in the world of graphic novels. It's one of those "How have I not read this before?!" scenarios like... an English major who realizes they have never read a single work of Shakespeare. So it has long been on my TBR list.

At least, virtually. I've always planned to read these, even though they were not actually, physically, on my shelves. In fact, I had them checked out of the library at the very time that we decided to read these together last October. Soooo... we're getting a little off-track from the actual original "TBR" plan with this, buuut... I have long intended to read these books. So thanks for agreeing to read them with me! :)

It's worth noting that we are reading 1-20, which coincides with either The Absolute Sandman, Vol 1 (1-20) or the first three trade paperbacks: Preludes and Nocturnes (1-8), The Doll's House (9-16), and Dream Country (17-20). But these books continued through to #75. If it's as good as I have heard that it is, I'm not sure we're going to be able to stop at 20. In that case, you can come visit me, we'll get the rest out of my library and read them all together. (Sounds like an awesome weekend, doesn't it?)


Monday, January 5, 2015

Starting Off the Year with an Illegal Squeeze Play


I know we agreed to read The Sandman in January, and I have ordered mine on Amazon and they will be delivered on Wednesday. I was hoping my library would have them, but they didn't. It happens. It's not like I'm sad to buy books.

Anyhoo, when I was making this year's list, I was thinking of adding the book Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. I was sure I'd had it for a year. It has to do with the Mexican drug wars, and I teach a book called House of the Scorpion every January. It made perfect sense in my brain that I would have been especially interested in Prayers for the Stolen last January when I was reading HotS (That's what I call it on all my handouts, because Lol.) with my kids. Although I can't really use adult novels with my students, any wider reading I do helps me teach with a bigger lens. But, as it was released on February 11, 2014, so no dice on the list.

Oh, you mean some things never change!? Quelle shock!
That means I did a little switch-up to my final list, and I ended up adding a book called How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ. This is trim little book, maybe only 150 pages. I've had it for a while, but it came to my attention again last summer when it was used by Mallory Ortberg as the basis of deliciously aggressive attack on a New Yorker article profile of poet Patricia Lockwood.  To clarify, Mallory was attacking the male writer of the piece, who basically concern trolls Lockwood for 5000 words.

Anyways, I started reading How to Suppress Women's Writing a few days ago, thinking I'd just squeeze it in this weekend before The Sandman books arrived. But once I realized I needed to swap out a TBR book, I figured I'd just squeeze it in here, too.

Basically, How to Suppress Women's Writing is totally fucking infuriating in basically every way, magnified by the fact that it is 30 years old, and so little has changed. It's funny, because I remember reading the New Yorker article above, and being bothered by its tone, but unable to put my finger exactly on the problem. I also got distracted by its mention of this harrowing, and yet fantastic poem. So when I read the critique in The Toast a few days later, it was like an epiphany.

Oh, yes. This.

I apologize now, because I bet this ends up being really long, because even though the book is short, it is packed with powerful ideas. How have I not read this before?

Basically, Russ lays out a series of moves that can be made that denigrate, downplay, and demoralize artists that aren't in the dominant group of white men. And although she focuses very specifically on women, she's very clearly including people of color, too. Which, given that she wrote this thing in 1983 was kind of surprising. (The problem of white feminists is well-documented on the internet, but it's like a fucking rabbit hole. Down you go!)

I like what she says in the prologue: "What follows is not intended as a history. Rather it is a sketch of an analytic tool: patterns in the suppression of women's writing" (5). Each strategy is outlined in a brief chapter with examples, both from female authors themselves, from men who wrote about those women, or from data. Here's a not-so brief tour. Interestingly, we have talked about some of these ideas before, either on the blog or in person. Without having this specific vocabulary, we've both seen these ideas in action before. One more interesting thing, Russ describes these ideas as a chain of events, where if one doesn't work to suppress the non-desired artist, then move on to the next. Eventually, you'll get somewhere.

Prohibitions: Control access to fields and materials women or POC need to create art. One interesting thing that Russ discusses here specifically related to women is the burden of housework and managing families. She quotes a writer Kate Wilhelm, "I realized the world, everyone in it practically, will give more and more responsibility to any woman who will continue to accept it. And when the other responsibilities are too great, her responsibility to herself must go. Or she has to take the thoroughly selfish position to refuse the world, and then accept whatever guilt there is" (9).  Ouch. Who doesn't recognize those feelings? I mean, it's 2014 and we still live in a time when you get a hard time for not having kids, and I get a hard time for only having one! She writes about how women are discouraged from pursuing higher education degrees, their commitment to their art is questioned, and their family responsibilities are used against them.

Needless to say, this also made me think a lot about the situation of our public schools. My son is lucky enough to go to a school where he gets instruction in visual arts, drama, dance, and music. But think about how many public school children get NO funding for the arts. I'm not sure if you saw it, but I was talking in December about a friend who's a first year art teacher at a public school here in Chicago. She literally had *one* bottle of glue for her 400 students. I mean, what the ever loving fuck? She created an Amazon wish list, and managed to get a lot of donations to her classroom, but that's not sustainable. It is infuriating. I actually wrote a whole thing on FB about it: I've been thinking a lot about why I find myself so moved by this----and I think it's this: My grandfather was an artist, mostly self-taught from what I understand, but he loved to paint. I passed many, many childhood hours painting with him in his basement studio. I don't think I quite realize the impact it had on me until recently---not only was my grandfather a painter, my grandmother was sewed and crocheted, my brother is an architect, my sister-in-law is a writer, my best friend makes beautiful and amazing arts and crafts of every kind, my friend at work is a photographer, there are lots of musicians in my life, and my favorite teacher in college was a poet...the list goes on and on. These are people who are actually making the world a more beautiful place, who are revealing what it means to be human, and who have enriched my life in countless ways. My son attends a wonderful school where he is lucky enough to take band, visual art, dance, AND drama. I just want those kids to have what he has, what I had, and what all children should have. 

Bad Faith: When prohibition fails, and those pesky people keep on making art anyways, other ways of suppressing that art must be deployed. But social systems--all of the -isms you can think of, basically--will come to the rescue. The text shown in the picture above is the main thrust of the bad faith argument, and it follows with this, "To slide into decisions without allowing oneself to realize that one's making any, to feel dimly that one is enjoying advantages without trying to become clearly aware of what these are..., cooking one's mental books to congratulate oneself on traditional behavior as if were actively moral prefer not to know...this great, fuzzy area of human ingenuity is what Jean Paul Sartre calls bad faith" (19). After all, when thinking about it logically, why would have a different body make someone less of an artist? Why would have different shades of skin color prevent someone from being an artist. Why would someone's age, or religion, or any number of things prevent one from being an artist? It literally makes NO logical sense, and yet, humans have created entire societies based on the premise----and the brilliance of the system is that it's so hidden from view, many people run around denying racism, sexism, or whatever even exist! It's enough to make my head spin.

Denial of Agency: Pretty straightforward idea: deny that a woman wrote it. This plays out in obvious ways, for example, I teach The Diary of Anne Frank every year, and explain how the Netherlands Institute for War Research did extensive analysis of her papers to prove that Anne herself wrote the diary, and not her father, as many people claimed. "There's no way a fifteen year old girl could have written that!" Except she did, so fuck off.

Denial of agency has an interesting twist, though, which is the idea that the writing somehow wrote itself, or that the writing was channeled by an inner masculine self.  As an example, Russ cites women who are said to write like a man, or with a masculine eye or wit. Finally, denial of agency calls female authors more than a woman. For example, the poet Robert Lowell says of Sylvia Plath,
"[She] becomes...something imaginary, newly, wildly created--hardly a person at all or a woman, certainly not a poetess" (23). This reminds me of that stupid song Bee Gee's song More Than a Woman, I mean, WTF? You must really value me if I'm more than a woman? What do I become if I'm more than a woman? A man? Similarly, what does it mean if a black person has "transcended" race? That they are white?

Pollution of Agency: The idea here is that for women to write or create art is "immodest" or inappropriate. Russ explains that throughout history, "women who were virtuous could not know enough about life to write well, while those who knew enough about life to write well could not be virtuous" (25). Obviously, this isn't quite the case anymore. Times in fact have changed, so Russ makes the claim that pollution of agency now combines two ideas that "what has been written is not art and that such writing is...too personal" (29). For example, if a man is to write a confessional novel about his time during war, that is seen as gritty and real; but for a woman to write about her life is confessional. "Plath's work is confessional; Allen Ginsberg's is not" (31). A woman must disavow all things feminine in order to create art, but men are never asked to choose between a fulfilling family life and their art. Probably my favorite book from last year was a short novel called The Department of Speculation, which is about a woman who wanted to do nothing more than be "an art monster" but her family and marriage get in her way.

The Double Standard of Content: The double standard of content claims that one set of experiences is more valuable and important than the other. We have definitely talked about this idea before, maybe when discussing The Marriage Plot? Russ calls this "perhaps the most fundamental weapon in the armory" and I still see this one all the time. The author quotes Virginia Woolf, "Speaking crudely, football and sport are 'important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial.' And those values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book...because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room" (41).  The other way this materializes, of course, is that when a man writes about marriage and family, it's serious literature. When a woman does the same, it's often labeled chick-lit. This is an argument that Jennifer Weiner makes often; and although she gets a lot of shit for it, I respect her for tirelessly making the case that women authors aren't treated as seriously as their male counterparts. This means, obviously, that much of women's writing is labeled and packaged as non-important "chick lit" that is not real art.

False Categorizing: This is an interesting one. Here, women artists and authors are "belittled by assigning them to the 'wrong' category, denying them entry into the 'right' category, or arranging the categories" (49). One of the major ways to make this move is to always discuss a woman as a sister, mother, wife, or lover. Even better is if you can make the woman's art or writing subservient to a male artist she is affiliated with. In this way, Marie Curie becomes her husband's laboratory assistant; Frieda Kahlo is Diego Rivera's wife; Alma Mahler, wife of composer Gustav, was a composer before their marriage and after he forbade her to write music. Another way this plays out is to assign women to a separate category. Hence, Kate Chopin and Willa Cather are "regionalists" while Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner are most certainly American greats, even though their work was just as firmly tied to a small slice of America. In another example, James Baldwin is not a novelist, but George Orwell is.

Russ points out the categories that female authors, especially those of the nineteenth century, are identified by: Whore [today's corollary is the sexually liberated woman], Lady, Wife, Spinster, and Madcap. Men are also categorized, but usually their categories, such as Self-destructive Visionary, Tough Jock, or Sage are flattering to the men. As she points out, "What male writer has been transformed by critics into the sad, reclusive, timid bachelor, or devoted submissive husband [seen as an exemplary figure]? T.S. Eliot did not become the bank clerk instead of The Poet" (57).

Of course, this pops up today all the time. Remember the famous case of the New York Times obituary of a female scientist that led with a description of her best casserole dishes?

[PS. I took a many hour break right at this place. This shit is exhausting. Feel free to take a break yourself!]

Isolation:  An artist that is a woman or person of color can be undermined when you claim that they have only produced one good work. For example, did you know that Charlotte Bronte wrote works other than Jane Eyre, none of which are in print? Russ spends a great deal of time discussing a novel of hers, Villette. Luckily, now with the Kindle, it is easier to get hold of women's work. For example, I downloaded the complete works of Virginia Woolf today for $2.99. However, that doesn't change the fact that many women produced multiple works, but we only know a fraction of them because only a fraction of them are codified. We think of Mary Shelly as only have written Frankenstein, or Elizabeth Barrett Browing as only have written Sonnets from the Portuguese. Russ argues that "it is no accident that the myth of the isolated achievement so often promotes women writers' less good work as their best work" (66). She argues persuasively that women are underrepresented because male critics and readers misunderstand the work of women, calling it either strident or simple. Perhaps my favorite line in a book filled with punchy, pithy phrases came in this section. She writes,  "It is surely uncomfortable for a patriarch to see patriarchy as a central problem" (73). I was annotating again, and I wrote "!!ha!!" in the margins.

Anomalousness: This is the claim that perhaps a woman may have wrote something, but there are hardly any women like her. The obvious outcome of this belief is that few women writers are actually worth reading. You've actually seen me identify this problem, back when I was reading James Wood's How Fiction Works. In How to Suppress Women's Writing, Russ points out that no matter where an anthology is from or when it was published, women's writing is often only represented by about 7-8% of the authors. I wish I was making this shit up, but I pointed out that Wood discusses only 8 female authors out of 68---thirty years later and we've only really made a tiny amount of progress, with women representing about 12% of the author's Wood discusses. Every year, someone counts up the number of book reviewers in the media. The numbers are grim. These percentages make women and people of color (who fare even worse) only tokens. Russ quotes a psychologist who explains that "tokenism is...found whenever a dominant group is under pressure to share privilege, power...with a group that is excluded...tokenism advertises a promise of mobility which is severely restricted in quantity...the token does not become assimilated...but is destined for permanent marginality" (84).

Lack of Models: Because women's writing has been so successfully repressed, each successive generation of women believes that they are starting fresh and creating a literary canon of their own work. In this section, Russ discusses how literature is taught, the lack of representation of women in university faculties (I would be curious to see if women are still underrepresented) and how women's work is often published in incomplete, bowdlerized editions. For example, a complete edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry was not available until the late 1950s. (Russ points out that it is unlikely, for example, that Virginia Woolf would have read Dickinson's poetry. I actually had to sit and let that wash over me for a few minutes. Damn.) In writing programs, the work of women and people of color is deemed less-worthy and not as serious. This, of course is still true. Only only need look at the GamerGate situation to see that women are not taken seriously, and are in fact actively told they are inferior, in the realm of all kinds of artistic endeavors.

[I am literally exhausted writing this. Ironically, This Woman's Work by Kate Bush just came up in iTunes shuffle. This must be a sign for me to go on.]

Responses: This one is a little bit backwards, instead of what is done to women, it explains that a common reaction of women is to renounce their femininity/womanhood in order to be accepted as artists. Women who wish to be writers know the game is rigged and they will never be accepted as "real artists" and therefore choose to work in other genres, such as romance, fantasy, or science fiction. Of course, this is also why women choose pseudonyms, knowing their work may be judged more fairly if they are not identified as female: JK Rowling, anyone? Russ says the only way for a woman to be celebrated or "pre-eminent" in a field is if she "invents it...and locates it in an area that is so badly paid or of such low status that men don't want it' (101). In the margin of that little gem, I wrote "Twitter!"

This is an interesting section, and it's one I struggled with perhaps the most. I don't think Russ is blaming women, but she points out that is we collectively cede the right to belong, then we are complicit. It reminds me of that line from Crazy, Stupid, Love, where one man says to another, "The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started pole dancing for exercise." That's a funny line, but this book was written far before the internet, which most days just feels like a teeming cesspool of hate. In the photo above, Russ says that "active bigotry is rare" but this was pre-social media. Women who have the temerity to have a voice or identity on the internet are routinely met with the most blatant and vicious attacks. Can anyone truly blame women who just refuse to fight in the face of actual threats to their physical safety?

Aesthetics: Finally, the most popular, well-known, and respected literature will demean and women and their concerns. Here, Russ argues that "a mode of understanding literature which can ignore the private lives of half the human race is not 'incomplete'; it is distorted through and through" (111). Here, Russ points out that male authors do a poor job of writing female characters because they don't bother to try and genuinely understand them. For example, Russ says that many male authors create female characters who are convinced of their own beauty. She tartly--and rightly--says, "I have yet to find her is women's books or women's memoirs or in life" (111). Again, this is a tricky moment for me. I don't think you can only write what you know---I believe in the ability of a good writer to  imagine and portray the life of the other. However, I must admit that the bar seems to be lower for male authors. I often find myself reading women characters from male authors and wondering, who thinks like this? What I don't know is if men feel the same way when they write books by women. Of course, the problem might be that so few men actually bother to read books by women. As I've told you before, even in middle school, my male students are more skeptical of female authors and less likely to read books with female main characters.

I also wanted to point out one other part in this section which I think will be of particular interest to you, which is a discussion of art vs. decoration. She quotes another author who says, "The prejudice against the decorative has a long art history and is based on hierarchies: fine art above decorative art, Western art above non-Western art, men's art above women's art...high art means man, mankind, the individual man, [etc]" (114). I also think about this a lot. I know compliments are hard to take, but your home to be one of my favorite places in the world. Why is it that your talents for decoration, for crafts, for making a place feel both comfortable and interesting, for marrying the serious and the whimsical not more highly valued? Last week, I saw an article someone posted on Facebook reviewing a book that promotes the radical idea that quilts are art. I felt so silly---I assumed they were all along. I didn't realize it was up for debate.

Finally, and I swear I'm ending soon, she talks about why women's art, or black art, or Latin@ [I changed that from Chicano, I'll admit it] is seen as threatening and in need of suppression. I mean, why all this bother? She says, "What is that it calls into question the very idea of objectivity and absolute standards: This is a good novel. Good for what? Good for whom? One side of the nightmare is that the privileged group will not recognize that 'other' art, will not be able to judge it, that the superiority of taste and training by the privileged critic and the privileged artist will suddenly vanish" (118). This seems, on it's face, a silly thing to be afraid of, but the ability to control the narrative is powerful. I guess that would be hard to give up.

After all that reading, so much of which is still sadly so true today, it's hard not to feel a bit maudlin and melancholy. The author died a few years ago, and I'm actually pretty curious to read more of her work. It seems to me that the work of women and people of color is less able to be clearly or cleanly suppressed---there is no greater democratizing force than the internet! And so the anger, vitriol, and hatred aimed at women and people of color is even more intense. In fact, just yesterday, I saw the following tweet on this very subject.

How far have we really come? How much more will we have to fight? I will say, for being such a short read, I found this to be the most thought-provoking and provocative things I have read in a long time. I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about this one.

Also, if we're being honest, this is the kind of work I can produce before the start-up of work and grad school. Hah! Thank God I read this when I did!

As for The Sandman and our other shared books for 2015, I am looking forward to reading them. Onwards, 2015!


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Our Books for 2015

This is our fifth year of committing to reading books from our To Be Read (TBR) piles and reporting on them right here. 2014 was a little rough, but we're recommitting for 2015! (Our lists from 2011-2014 can be found over in the sidebar for anyone interested in delving deeper.)

We're shaking it up a bit this year with four shared books that we will both read at the same time. The discussion of those selections went down in the comments on this post and then we assigned months when we were together.

Here they are:
Additionally, we each have each chosen 10 other books from our TBR piles (8 we will read and 2 backups) so here are our lists for 2015... 

Jenny's Books
Here is a screen cap from Shelfari of the books Jenny has chosen:
(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke (completed 8.31)
  2. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (completed 8.4)
  3. How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ (completed 1.4)
  4. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
  5. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  6. The Night Manager by John le Carré (July)
  7. On Beauty by Zadie Smith (April)
  8. The Sandman #1-20 by Neil Gaiman (January)
  9. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (completed 6.9)
  10. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (completed 12.28)
  11. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (completed 12.13)
  12. The Virgins by Pamela Erens (completed 3.15)
  13. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (completed 5.15)
  14. White Girls by Hilton Als (completed 12.23)

Kelly's Books

Here is a screen cap from Shelfari of the books Kelly has chosen:
(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
  2. The Fourth Hand by John Irving (Completed 11.27)
  3. From Girls to Grrrlz : A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines by Trina Robbins (Completed 12.10)
  4. Fugitives and Refugees by Chuck Palahniuk (Completed 10.25)
  5. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Completed 2.24)
  6. The Last Lovely City by Alice Adams (Completed 3.14)
  7. The Night Manager by John le Carré (July)
  8. On Beauty by Zadie Smith (April)
  9. The Roald Dahl Omnibus: Perfect Bedtime Stories for Sleepless Nights by Roald Dahl (Completed 10.15)
  10. The Sandman #1-20 by Neil Gaiman (January 2015)
  11. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Completed 5.10)
  12.  Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
  13. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (completed 12.28)
  14. The Turn of the Screw/Daisy Miller by Henry James (Completed 11.21)
We each have 14 books on our lists -- 12 for 12 months, plus two alternates, just in case we cannot stand a couple of them. Again, four of them are shared books that we will both read in our designated months, as noted above.

We will then write about them on this blog (Spoiler warning: we are spoiler-iffic with the spoilers) and then we will cross 'em off on this list by linking to our reviews/reports.

This is part of the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge at Roof Beam Reader -- the site that originally inspired us to get us working on our TBR piles in 2011. (As always, thank you, Adam!)