Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Completed: A Confederacy of Dunces


Talk about taking one for the team! Our read of A Confederacy of Dunces to start off the year came about in a really weird way. I had posted some dumb Facebook challenge--sum up the plot of your favorite novel in six words---and my husband posted a six word description of A Confederacy of Dunces. You texted me the equivalent of WUT?!?! and a book challenge was born. 

Basically, we agreed to read (re-read for you, first time read for me) this book, and Darrell agreed to read along with us and be our special guest. 

When we started, your two mindsets could not be more different. Lol. 

The Rereaders and DNFer
Darrell first read this book in a college class (editor's note: LONG TIME AGO!) on Southern Fiction. One of the most interesting parts to me is that Darrell said, "changed my perspective on the South." As you know, the South is not Darrell's favorite place (editor's note: this is a radical understatement), so reading something that helped explain this place and that was also a farce was a real win for him. Farce has always been one of his favorite genres in comedy, and he didn't know it existed in "literature" until he read this book.

Kelly had already read it and *ahem* disliked it. She read it with a book group, and as far as she can remember, they read it as straight fiction, not as a farce/satire/etc. She cannot remember anyone thinking the book was funny; everyone hated the main character and everything he did and wondered why anyone would enjoy this book.

Jenny had started this book at some point---it was her husband's favorite book of all time!--but honestly found it so tedious that she gave up in the first 30 or so pages. "We can still have true love and different tastes in books," she remembers thinking.

This time around, Kelly and Darrell read it via aBook while Jenny read the pBook.

Conversation 1
I for one were really happy we talked to Darrell about it as we read. Having him keep saying, "Don't you think it's funny?" helped me get to the parts that were truly humorous. For me, that wasn't until Ignatius got the job at the Levy Pants factory.

Darell pointed out that the most biting satire is about work: who works, who doesn't, who has to work, who doesn't work, who is made to work. We all liked the character of Trixie, who is forxed to work even though she only wants to retire. Furthermore, with the setting being New Orleans--- it places the book firmly in relationship to the Civil Rights movement. This leads to the ultimate question: what is the ultimate concept of work in a place like the South, where people were forced to work? This setting allows the author to explore modern influences in our society and how they've adapted to the systems of our culture--sexism, racism, feminism, etc.

Kelly noticed that the author was an especially astute observer of race relations, which is not a skill we attribute  to that many white folks, especially white folks in the 60s. In fact, with this ridiculous character, the author recognizes that this is not the right way to bridge the racial divide. This is a topic that is being addressed far more publicly today (2017) so it's interesting to see Toole recognizing it in the 1960s. Darrell agreed, saying that the best part about the writing how observational it is, hitting on all these details without shying away from what he sees.

Darrell talked about the description of what he saw as the "passivity of southern black culture" in the text. He went on to say, "My relationship to people I grew up with in the south--I had a friend like Ignatius, his dad committed suicide--his house looked like a plantation. He never worked! I always had a job, but he never had to work. And the whole notion of work was scary. He had an elitist perspective about work." I thought this was especially interesting because I think one of the things that Darrell and I have most in common is a belief in hard work.

We wrapped up the first conversation by talking about some of the female characters, especially the Mother. She's this fascinating creature that is a complete paradox: nature vs nurture; her pride and intolerance of her son; her spoiling and shaming of him. Kelly pointed out that the "donut scene" where she offers Mancuso the leftover, picked over donuts is the author's way of making sure we know that Mom is the one who created and is feeding the beast that is Ignatius. Jenny did a lot of inappropriate giggling at all of the homoerotic imagery used by Ignatious---lots of hot dogs and Dr. Nuts in this book.

Kelly and Darrell both said that the aBook is terrific and laughed over Jones' pronunciation of "whoa" and "ooowee."

Convo 2:
I didn't take as many notes this time. We talked a lot about how this book is character-driven vs. plot-driven, and the various challenges that presents to the reader.

The plot itself just builds to a farcical crescendo, the most memorable part of which might be Ignatius running around New Orleans with a cutlass! Darrell admired how the author was crafty in the way he created the story, demonstrating how we're all interconnected. We can complain about everything but you'd be surprised how much gravitas you carry for the people around you. Darrell said, "There's no plot!" and Jenny grumbled, "Yes, that's my problem!" Lol.

As a character, Ignatius always blames everyone else for his problems, but his perception of why things are the way they are---fortuna--which compels everything to happen, and he's powerless to help it. We all thought he was pretty loathsome and unwilling to accept any responsibility, but he's  a catalyst, making things happen for all the characters around him. Darrell thought that in this way, Ignatius stands in for the South itself, it carries everyone down a road, it impacts who they are, their outcomes,  but anyone can better their situation. He thinks that the people who end up okay have some sort of impetus, motivation, or drive.

The ending was sort of a let down. Since I was the only one reading a pBook, I could tell that the book was ending, but Kelly said she was surprised it had ended. Especially with the frenetic pace of the plot up until the street fight, the ending just seemed to lose its steam. Darrell, though, pointed out that it played, tempo-wise, very much like a Mardi Gras funeral. The slowness, the mournfulness, seemed almost purposeful.

I honestly would not have enjoyed the book nearly as much without all the conversation, and I'm sure that Darrell and Kelly felt the same way.

Signing off until Putin strikes. Ooowee!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Our books for 2017

Wow! This is our seventh year of committing to reading books from our To Be Read (TBR) piles and talking about them on this here blog. Dang!

New Format for 2017

For the previous six years, we each selected our own list of books and worked on them independently. For the last two years, we have also chosen a few books to read together throughout the year. Since we enjoyed that so much (and kind of struggled to get through our independent lists in 2016...), we decided to read all of our books together this year. 

So this has turned into a little 2-woman virtual book group. (We do have a special guest in January to mix things up, though.)

2016 was the first year that we were not a part of a larger reading challenge. We missed that experience, so we looked around and found... the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge.

We then went through our TBR shelves and chose books that we had that would fit the 24 Read Harder (RH) categories and we compiled our joint list for 2017:

Our 2017 Books 

Our chosen books, in alphabetical order (RH categorie[s] that the book fulfills are in parentheses):
  1. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
    (book set in Central or South America/written by a Central or South American author; book published between 1900 and 1950 )
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    (debut novel) 
  3. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio
    (book published by a micropress) 
  4. The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
    (fantasy novel)
  5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    (book about books; book you’ve read before) 
  6. for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
    (classic by an author of color; collection of stories by a woman)
  7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    (book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country)
  8. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
    (book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location)
  9. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
    (book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative)
  10. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
    (book about war)
  11. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North
    (superhero comic with a female lead; all-ages comic)
  12. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
    (book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color; book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey)
  13. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
    (nonfiction book about technology)
  14. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
    (travel memoir)
Note: We choose 14 books in case any of them are unbearable and we need to ditch them. In the past, we have aimed to read 12 per year. Of course, if we want a chance at "winning" the challenge, we'll be readin' all 14. Stay tuned!

There were 24 categories on the form (<-- that is the form with our books filled in) and these are the ones that we did not select books for together:
  • A book about sports. (Jenny feels confident that a ToB book is going to fulfill this category.)
  • A book that is set within 100 miles of your location (since we don't live less than 200 miles apart, no one book could fit this for both of us. Jenny is going to read Negroland by Margo Jefferson and Kelly is going to read The Sugar House by Jean Scheffler. We may or may not report on these here. It's our blog, so we do what we want. Heh.)
  • A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+ (Jenny recommends Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee, which fills both this category and the next, but she's already read it.)
  • An LGBTQ+ romance novel.
  • A collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Reading and Discussion Schedule

As we go through the year, we'll update this for ourselves...
  • January: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (w/ special guest: Darrell!)
  • January/Feb: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen 
  • Post-Putin/Pre-UG Palette Cleanser: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North
  • Feb/March: Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 
  • March/April: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi 
  • May: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman 
  • July: Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio
[time passes... book blog gets ignored...]
  • Nov: Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi 
  • Dec: The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
Whew! That was a lot of information. But hey, we'll be happy we wrote all of this down in another seven years when we say "Wait... how did we pick our books that year?"

Now let's get reading!