Now I want to read all of the Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell You is a compilation of essays and short stories by Shirley Jackson, who you may know best as the author of “The Lottery”, a story about a stoning that takes place in what otherwise seems to be contemporary America. (In one of the essays, she talks about the genesis of that story. She’d been reading a book about human sacrifice, and, whilst walking her kids to school, started thinking about how such a thing would work in the small town in which she lived.)

It was deeply entertaining – some of the stories were better than the others – but the best part of a good book were her essays. One of the best was when she was describing the old house she and her family lived in, and its ghosts which were sometimes friendly and sometimes not, but by and large seemed to approve of them living there. The whole book was smart and entertaining.

Highly recommended.

Love, charm, and optimism

Becky Chambers writes charming science fiction novels that are primarily about all of the forms that love and family take, and Record of a Spaceborn Few is no exception.

Humans have long since left Earth and been integrated into Galactic society, but there are people who still live on the ships they first set out on, constantly improving and working on and changing those ships so people can continue to live comfortably on them. (And in a great touch: those ships are built from dismantled skyscrapers and other buildings and city structures from Earth – the Golden Gate Bridge or the Chrysler Building could be part of any ship.)

The plot comes from the fact that humans are relatively poor and technologically backwards and the Fleet is essentially that small town every teenager wants to leave for the big, exciting city. But there is also at least one person looking to come back, looking for a place to belong.

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” – Tolstoy

(Not that the book is on par with Tolstoy, but the quote is relevant here.) Record of a Spaceborn Few is the story of the town and the people in it, full of warmth and love in many different forms. Definitely recommended.

Why does this website exist?

How to Read Novels Like a Professor gives you the tools to better analyze a novel: things like voice and chapter structure and ideas and beginnings and endings. But the thesis of the book is something near and dear to my heart: that you, as a reader, when you engage with a book, you make it better. These are the tools that Foster is giving you to better, more wholly engage with a work of fiction.

This is obviously near and dear to my heart – I write these reviews because they make me a better reader. What was that book about? Do I agree with it? Did I like the characters, and does that matter? Was the language any good? Reflecting on those things and more means I engage with the books I read (even the non-fiction) more deeply and enjoy reading even more than I already do. Caring about things like structure and sentences makes a difference. Knowing how to analyze a story makes a difference.

Obviously recommended.

Clothes matter

Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore was a delight. It was exactly what it promised to be: an examination of the standard uniform of various writers, mainly but not exclusively of the 20th century. Full of pictures and pithiness, clothes project an image of who the writers want you to think they are: rebels, an aloof outsider, cultured, whatever.

It should be said that clothes do matter; even if you claim not to care what you wear, you are still conforming (or not) to a standard. Grabbing the top t-shirt on the pile (and bragging about it) says so much about who you are and the position you have in society and the amount of respect you have for those around you (little, I would argue).

Clothes do not make the writer – dressing like Joan Didion will not make you write like her – but they are another way authors express themselves. And it  was fun to look at the photos and read what the various authors say about their fashion tics.

(PS I cannot imagine reading this book on a kindle/tablet. Get the hard-cover version and enjoy its design.)

Unexpectedly relevant

I read The Secret History about a million times in college. To this day, I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with it.

When the weather turned, it seemed like a good time for a re-read. The characters were much the same: so obsessed with finding some ancient Greek definition of beauty that they’d lost all their morality. Donna Tartt’s description of   the New England fall and winter were still lovely and haunting and they made me want to spend all my time at a small college in some tiny Eastern state.

What I wasn’t expecting though, was the parallels between Bunny, the tragi-comic character who drives much of the plot, and Donald Trump. They are both bumbling, in over their heads, cruel in a way that doesn’t realize its full consequences, utterly insistent that the world is the way he sees it, and charming (according to Maggie Haberman, Trump is captivating in a one-on-one setting in a way Obama never was). It made it kind of hard to read in spots, honestly.

That parallel made The Secret History surprisingly relevant – I got insight into our current president and the people around him in a way I was not expecting from a book published in 1992.

Recommended, and not just for nostalgia’s sake.

Sex and violence and feeling worthless

Difficult Women is easily the most literary of all the books I’ve read lately. Roxane Gay is an excellent author, able to express herself clearly and concisely and in a way that makes me appreciate just how good she is. Which is not to say that these stories are overly intellectual or anything. Just… she’s good.

All of the women in these stories have issues with sex, violence, feeling worthless, and the combination thereof. None of them are particularly likable. There is at least one thinly veiled story of Roxane Gay’s own gang rape at the age of 12. I cannot imagine – literally, I can’t.

Are these stories part of her working through that? Maybe? I mean, I suspect the therapy was long and involved and that’s not the kind of thing you can work through whilst writing even one book. Do I think this book of short stories would be completely different if that hadn’t happened? Absolutely, because she would have been a completely different person.

Difficult Women: worth your time.

Take power

I loved this book. Really and truly. Why? Because ultimately, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is about female power. It’s about how to stand up for yourself, and how to get what you want. Maybe it’s to get the hell out of the neighborhood you grew up in. Maybe it’s a career instead of a husband. Maybe it’s to be an editor instead of a writer. Maybe it’s to get out of a marriage. Maybe it’s a career when you’re being pushed aside because you’re getting “too old.” Maybe it’s the love of your life.

And it’s still relatively rare to find a book where a female main character exercises power and isn’t punished for it, where she doesn’t rely on someone else to help her or get it done for her. It’s alllll Evelyn Hugo.

I am here for it. Recommended.

When the patriarchy was even stronger

Agrippina by Anthony A Barrett

Agrippina, specifically Agrippina the Younger, was a kind of incredible woman who co-ruled the Roman Empire first with her husband Claudius and then with her son Nero. This book has a distinctly feminist take on her.

Agrippina has often been portrayed as a power-hungry woman who would do anything (e.g. setting up Claudius’ prior wife for political downfall, murdering Claudius so Nero would inherit over Claudius’ natural son, sleeping with Nero once he was on the throne to stay in his good graces) to rule Rome. Mr Barrett’s take on it is as follows:

  1. Look, she was a powerful woman in a deeply misogynistic society. She’s not going to be portrayed in anything like a positive light.
  2. She only shows up in the contemporary stories about the men whose lives she was in. We don’t have anything that focuses on her.
  3. Sex scandals were frequently used by the contemporary sources to explain why powerful people (both men and women) were suddenly not in power anymore.

So when she’s implicated in a sex scandal, it’s important to look around and see who benefits and who else is being taken down with her. That’s going to show you what’s really going on.

Here are the facts: she was raised by an extraordinarily determined mother and her dead father was worshipped by the military. When she was around Caligula (the emperor before Claudius and her brother), he wasn’t such a crazy asshole who tried to kill everyone. Claudius’ reign was much smoother when she was his wife than when he was married to his prior wife. Nero didn’t go off the rails until after she was banished (and then he had her killed to keep her from coming back). Shit worked when she was on the scene.

So maybe consider that the contemporary reports were written by gossipy people with a strong patriarchal bias and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

I liked this one.

History-ish, not really science fiction

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was, as we all learned in history class, the network of people who helped slaves escape the American South. In Whitehead’s book, the railroad is a real thing, with tracks and trains running at irregular intervals to which people away to the next station.

Cora is a third-generation slave who decides to use the railroad to escape once it becomes clear that rape is in her immediate future. She runs from Georgia to the Carolinas, to Tennessee, to Indiana to show all of the different ways to be enslaved: plantation labor, in the city (the work program she’s in turns out to be part of a larger eugenics plan), hiding in a small nook in a hot summer attic for weeks on end.

She’s pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher by nature. He’s evil and wears a necklace of human ears to show that he’s also somewhat deranged.

There’s death all over this book. Cora kills a young man who is part of a search party that temporarily catches up with her and her two fellow escapees. Ridgeway kills so many people as he hunts Cora. The town where she hides in the attic regularly lynches anyone even suspected of helping blacks.

Slavery and racism are ugly, violent, brutal things. The Underground Railroad makes that clear. It makes me, the white reader, feel guilty and uncomfortable. And it should. Slavery is one of the foundational sins of America, something we have never fully atoned for. Listening to its stories, bearing witness to something I’ve been taught to look away from is a start. But only a start.