Read Harder Review Catch Up

So, I sort of forgot that I was doing the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, but I discovered my spreadsheet for it (occupational hazard, I have spreadsheets for everything) yesterday, and saw that unintentionally I’ve crossed some off the list in the past few months. Here are some mini-reviews (mostly taken from my Goodreads. Are you on Goodreads? Let’s be friends there.)

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood “A book that has been banned or heavily challenged in your country” 

This is a terrifying book. The timely resonance is chilling of course, and it made it harder to read than it probably would have been before the open misogyny of the current administration. It’s well written and the character is realistic, even in her weakness – this is a person not a “strong female character,” which I appreciated. But I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve finished it. At times it felt like a chore, not because it was dull, but because it was scary. I think I’ll be processing this one for a bit

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – “A classic by an author of color” 

I realized a couple of weeks ago that I could remember next to nothing about this book. I think I read it in high school, but it was a quick, beautiful read. The dialect (like all dialect) took me a little bit to get into, but I really loved the rhythm of it after a bit. Janie is an excellent central character. Knocking it a star for the bullshit (of it’s time) attitude towards domestic violence.

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No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts – “A book where all of the POV characters are of color” 

Billed as a reworking of The Great Gatsby, set in a present-day, economically depressed, African American community in the South. So not really The Great Gatsby at all. But that’s great! Watts takes the broad themes, and some of the character types, from Fitzgerald’s novel and then deeply roots them in their new context. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and deeply humane. (So maybe not that different from Gatsby at all.)

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A People’s History of Chicago by Kevin Coval – “A book published by a micropress”

So, I’m stretching a bit to classify Haymarket Books as a micropress, but whatever. This book is amazing. It will break your heart, make you laugh, and leave you wanting to storm some barricades. If you’re me, it will also make you incredibly homesick.

Weekly Adventure: Colm Tóibín at the Paula Cooper Gallery

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Almost 8 years ago (!), when I was studying abroad at University College Cork, my contemporary Irish literature professor assigned Blackwater Lightship, and since then I have been mildly obsessed with its author Colm Tóibín. I’ve been working my way through all of his books (and they range in genre including short stories, novels, memoirs, and literary criticism.) I’ve loved all of them. Many of them fall into the category of “things that are too important to me for me to write about in any coherent fashion.”

So instead, I will just give you my three favorite quotes from last night, remind you that sometimes it is great to meet your heroes (he was so kind and I’m inspired to write for the first time in ages), and tell you all to go buy his new book, or any of his old books.

“A novel loves money, it loves disappointment, it loves a marriage, it loves a marriage that does not happen.” – On novels as secular spaces

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Follow up: “So on page 6, I rid of the gods.” 

“If you’re a novelist, the most interesting part of a story is the blurred figure in the photograph.”

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Related: The Story of Night (a beautiful book about a gay man in Argentina) is “about someone who has not spoken before but must now speak”

Where I’m from the men didn’t say much, but the women would all be talking all at the same time.” – on why he writes with such power (to borrow a phrase from a question asker) in the voices of women

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The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part III

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The Writer’s Almanac helpfully reminded me yesterday that it was Shakespeare Day (both his birth and death day, or at least as far was we know), which was good encouragement to finish reading Henry VI. I only had a few scenes left, but was having trouble motivating myself. Because, as I have now mentioned multiple times, I’m pretty over this particular interpretation of the War of the Roses. I admit this is because I have, based on very casual personal research, and a crush on this well-cast actor, I’m pretty much decided that the Yorkists were right and therefore this whole conflict was wasted bloodshed.

I basically had made up my mind at the end of Part II how I felt about all characters involved in this tragic miscommunication, and at first it felt like there was a possibility for poor Henry to escape away to a monastery and pray, letting York and his sons take back the throne (as clearly based on patriarchal genetic inheritance ridiculousness was theirs). But of course, this is a Shakespearean history play so 1. there must be heads cut off and 2. a woman must ruin everything.

I wrote last time about how I appreciated Queen Margaret’s badassery, and I still kind of do, but it turns to folly in this part. Not just because she loses the ultimate battle, but because she has no foresight. She and her son should have stayed in France and they would have lived long, prosperous lives, claiming to be wrongfully exiled but with their heads intact. But, no, the all important crown must be won back for “poor Ned.” (Side note: why did they all name all of their sons Edward? I appreciate the comparative lack of Henrys in this installment, but still…diversify for the sake of clarity at least.) She does seem to love her son, but it’s clear that she really wants to hold power for herself and as she is female this is evil, I get that. But the scene where she and Clifford murder York is a bit heavy handed on the hand wringing villainy. Great wordplay sure, but it must be tricky to play and keep her seeming even remotely human.

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Gabriela Petrushevska in a Macedonian production available from Shakespeare’s Globe Player

Even if I hadn’t already made up my mind about the rightful claimants to the throne, the really disturbing, onstage murder of the youngest York boy would have turned me against the Lancastrians from then on. (Yes, I know that the York’s then retaliate by killing the also seventeen year old Prince of Wales, but he was actively waging war against the York princes when they killed him. Rutland was traveling home with his tutor and literally begging to spared the sins of his father. It’s heartbreaking and I’m not sure how you can watch that scene and then root for anyone associated with Clifford.)

This play also begins the character assassination of Richard III, which I won’t bore you with all my grievances now, but suffice to say the conflation of physical disfigurement with moral ineptitude is pretty hard to read with a modern eye. You’ll all get to read my full treatise on this if I ever reach the Rs. For now, just one more Henry to go!

Read Harder Review (and Five Star Book!): Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

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I underlined so many passages in this book. A fact I know Ms. Fadiman would appreciate. I also bought it on a trip to a bookstore that was explicitly to buy a book club book, and nothing else. But it fit the “book about books” line on my Book Riot Read Harder challenge list, so naturally I had to get it. (If that reeks of rationalization and addict behavior, you’re not wrong.) I knew from the blurb on the back that I was going to love this book, but I didn’t know just how much I would identify with it. Yes, I knew that Fadiman and I are both book people, who were also raised by book people, but more than that we’re both the same kind of book people.

For one, we’re both obsessive annotators, she described it as treating reading like a conversation, which I loved. We are also both collectors of words. She has an essay in here about quizzing her friends and family on words she had to look up while reading a 1920 Carl Van Vechten essay, something I have never done – I want my friends to keep liking me – but I have definitely made the same kinds of lists. (Honestly, I made a long one reading this book. I would argue her word choice was overly grand if I didn’t know she was just reveling in the diversity of the English language.)

Aside from the kinship with a fellow book and word nerd, I really loved her description of her family. When she was growing up they used to watch quiz shows religiously and shared a love of proofreading menus. I know that to some (most?) of you that must sound insufferable, but to me it was warmly familiar. My dad gives my mom (and anyone else who is around) a history quiz from the morning paper. My brother once took a victory lap around our dining room table after besting us all on a final Jeopardy question. A couple of months ago my brother’s high school friend responded to my correcting my father’s statement that Faneuil Hall opened in the 1990s by saying that he meant it was renovated then, by saying, “You can’t get away with anything with the Dennetts.” So maybe we’re a little insufferable too, but this book made me feel in good company.

Side note: She writes a lot about her husband George, and each time he came up I thought, “he seems great.” Turns out – I had read and loved his own memoir The Big House and thought the same about her!

Weekly Adventure: Mini-Break to Salem

The idea of witches has always been pretty fascinating to me. I’ve always loved reading Alice Hoffman novels, in high school I wore out my copy of The Probable Future, and I still return to her sprawling tales of New England women with complicated “gifts.” It’s no surprise that this was my favorite sign at the Women’s March in January:

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Because so much of the moral panic of witch trials can be tied back to women who didn’t fit into the idea of what a woman should do. Which is why its surprising that I actually hadn’t been to Salem, MA until this past weekend. Well, this weekend I took the Megabus up to visit Hanna in Cambridge (well actually Somerville…) and we took the train out to see what Salem had to offer.

And…it was awesome! For a few reasons:

1. It’s a super cute little New England harbor town, which is a particular kind of charm I really enjoy.

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2. The history, both of the witch trials and otherwise (it’s also Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hometown)

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3. The witchy wonderfulness. There is so much camp, and so much earnest Wiccan stuff. It was just exactly what I wanted it to be, and it was also incredibly strange once I stopped to think about it. The actual historical trials were about the paranoid superstition of a group of people who were wrongly accused of witchcraft, which is obviously a tragedy. But now the town is forever associated with witchcraft, and is a Mecca of sorts for the Wiccan and neo-Pagan community. Which is cool in that it’s sort of the ultimate fuck you to the Puritan authorities, but it also leads to a strange tension where the town can’t decide if they believe if witches are real or not, which opens the uncomfortable question about the (obvious at least to me) innocence of those executed. This narrative is most confused at the Salem Witch Museum, which I wish I could describe to you but it is beyond my power. Please just go, it costs $12 but you will never experience anything quite like it….

Anyway, it was also just a great first real Spring weekend up here in the Northeast, and Hanna and I had a delightful time being silly through the streets:

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I did not buy any, but I’m really regretting that now…

Weekly Adventure: I’m Nobody Who Are You at the Morgan Library

I love Emily Dickinson. I didn’t always. When I first read her I found her cold and distant and overly formal. Which looks ridiculous to me now. Imagine, thinking of a poem like this as reserved:

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But I also love what I know about her as a person. Not the mythical figure of the ghostly pale woman upstairs in her New England attic scribbling away and never leaving her house, but the weird and wonderful, and yes unmarried (gasp!), woman that I’ve pieced together over the years. The most clues for me came not from a biography but this collection of her “Envelope Poems.” I feel like that book made it the most clear how integral writing poetry was to her daily life, but also showed that she had a life beyond poetry. She was cooking or going to a concert or reading a letter when had these flashes of inspiration.

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Poem draft on a program card

The small show of her letters and drafts on view right now at The Morgan Library does a nice job of depicting Miss Dickinson’s quiet, but not empty, life. I especially liked the way they presented her interest in botany, with a digitized version of the plant catalog she made while a student at Mt. Holyoke. (It’s really beautifully designed and lets visitors flip though the pages, which obviously could never be done with the fragile original.) I also liked the way she wrote up and down on the pages of her letters, like she simply had too many thoughts to contain them to one direction:

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I had never been to The Morgan before, and I really appreciated the design of the exhibition. There was a lot of contextual information, but it was presented in a clear, uncluttered way. Also, this was the correct paint color:

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Though it doesn’t photograph very well apparently. It’s much greener than this in person.

It’s also just a beautiful space, J.P. Morgan’s library had me swooning (as my Instagram followers can tell you), and while I was there a classical duo was playing in the central courtyard, which was a lovely addition. I highly recommend a trip as a way to pass a gray Sunday afternoon.

The exhibition is on view through May 21st at The Morgan Library & Museum at 225 Madison Ave

Read Harder Review: History Was All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

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I have a book buying problem. Even while I’m forcing my way through a library book that has already been renewed multiple times, and staring at the book club book from last month that I haven’t even opened, I cannot stop myself from perusing the shelves of any bookstore I pass. Which is how I stumbled upon History Is All You Left Me a couple of weeks ago on a table at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side, but it’s OK, because it helped me cross “A YA or middle grade novel by an author that identifies as LGTBQIA+” off my Book Riot Read Harder challenge list. 

This is the story of a high school boy, Griffin, whose first boyfriend (and first ex-boyfriend) has tragically died. The story flashes back and forth between the “history” of their relationship and the present day confusion of grief that Griff is grappling with. He’s also dealing with the dead ex-boyfriend’s current boyfriend whose claim on the dead boy makes Griffin super jealous.

It’s a heavy premise, and at times Silverberg handles it with great care and style. But the machinations of the plot – the time jumping conceit, the way he is clearly withholding information from the reader until the very last seconds – made the experience of reading it less emotional for me. The strongest sections of this book are the ones where Griffin’s emotions are allowed to take center stage, even when those emotions are petty or ill-advised. Those sections are relateable and heartbreaking, the “mystery” of why the relationship ended or even how the boyfriend died left me feeling a bit colder.

Six Degrees of Cinema: Silence

I’m not sure how to write about SilenceAs a film fan I was struck by the beauty of the cinematography and the ambition of telling a story that in many ways is very internal, in a visual medium. As a person who, while admiring of his obvious genius, has a really complicated relationship with Martin Scorsese, I must say that I appreciate his contemplative side much more than whatever you want to call The Wolf of Wall Street

But, despite fantastic performances all around, not much of this movie stuck with me when I left the theater as I expected it to. Well, nothing artistic at least. As an exploration of religion and the nature of belief, I cannot stop thinking about it. It raised so many deep questions about martyrdom and apostasy and what faith in the face of the actual persecution looks like, and why governments engage in it. (I think it has something to do with fear of a power greater than themselves.) It’s an exploration of evangelism, and when its more dangerous for converts than liberating, what then is asked of a believer?

I don’t have answers, but its been a very long time since a movie made me think this deeply about spiritual things. So, let’s see if 1980s era Scorsese will pull that off as well with the next link, his The Last Temptation of Christ.

In this chain: Paterson – Silence

Weekly Adventure:The Glass Menagerie

I had a snow day from work yesterday. Which meant that I spent all day eating and finally watching The Crown. But earlier in the week, I had bought a discount ticket to The Glass Menagerie from Lincoln Center Theater, because Sally Field is in it. It was worth the cold walk to the subway (but honestly, house mangers, on the day of a blizzard when the temp is 10 below freezing, let people go to their seats early instead of lining up outside. C’mon.)

Anyway, this play has long been on my list of blindspots. I knew a few references, just enough to get “gentleman caller” jokes without ever having actually read or seen it. Because it was by Tennessee Williams I assumed it was bleak and beautiful. And I assumed right (though I didn’t find the ending to be terribly sad. There’s some room for hope there, or maybe I’m deluding myself.)

This production is strange, non-linear, and lovely. Like a so called “memory play” ought to be I suppose. At first, I was confused as to how I was supposed to believe that Joe Mantello was the younger brother of Madison Ferris, but then I realized that he was stepping into his own memory of the past. A conceit that actually worked really well once I got used to it.

Ms. Field did not disappoint. She is delightfully unhinged, and I don’t think I will ever forget the image of her in that Glinda the Good Witch courting dress. (Since the show is in previews, I can’t find a picture, but trust me it’s perfect.)

The heart of the show me though was the last 20 minutes, with Finn Wittrock, as the long awaited gentleman caller and Ferris*, lit only by candles and a neon sign. It was touching and intimate in a way I expect more from my beloved Chicago store fronts, not a grand Broadway house.

 

*Side note: it’s refreshing to see a disabled character played by an actress who uses a wheelchair rather than an able bodied actress putting on a limp (or something similar). More of that please.

 

 

Six Degrees of Cinema: Paterson

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Remember when I used to do these posts? Well, I have a couple of non-nominated Adam Driver movies that I wanted to see so I’m resurrecting this. As I wrote yesterday, I had just finished rereading Paterson by William Carlos Williams, the morning that I went to see this. I didn’t know if that would feel relevant, but it definitely did. It’s not a direct adaptation of Williams’s poem, but the feeling of the movie, it’s repetition and it’s preoccupation with notable figures in history with some connection to Paterson, has the same tone and rhythm.

On the level of plot there’s not much to recap here. A bus driver named Paterson wakes up next to his Iranian partner, gets up, eats Cheerios, works on a poem, drives his bus, eats dinner, walks the woman’s English bulldog Marvin, goes to the bar. Repeat. Then repeat again, with slight variations throughout the week. She flits between slightly odd creative projects, all variations on black and white, he remains consistent, but they clearly love each other. There is no love between the man and the dog. That’s it really.

But the sum of these days is something really lovely. Watching this couple navigate the mundane while also remaining committed to their creativity was quietly inspiring. Sitting in the this theater felt like communal meditation. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it felt like reading poetry. Complete with symbols that are clearly important but open to interpretation (what’s with all the twins?) and a laundromat rapper reminding us of WCW’s mantra, “No ideas but in things. No ideas but in things.”

In this chain: Paterson –