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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Books Read :: September-October 2015

::Hums that "Back, back, back to school again," song from Grease II:: because indeed, indeed I am! And loving it! I have realized an important thing, though, learned only recently--despite the semester nearly at an end--my reading career will have to change. In order to get my PhD, I'm expected to be proficient in a variety of ways, and one of them is to be well-read. This sounds awesome, in a way, but is disappointing in others that can be summed up in this: my reading list is no longer my own. This doesn't mean that I can't read for pleasure or discuss, here, the books I do read for pleasure, but it does mean that I will have to change the way I read. I'm not sure exactly yet my reading schedule will adapt, but I hope to still continue to provide brief notes on the works that I do finish. As for now, I will stick to what I've always done, and that is to only write about books I've read cover-to-cover. I think, though, that this might have to be something that changes in the future. For instance, I read a number of Phillis Wheatley's poems and a few of her letters for my Early American class but in no way did I read a comprehensive enough amount of her work to feel qualified to comment on how I felt about the Penguin collection of hers that I read as a whole.

Here are the books I did manage to finish reading my first two full months in this program, both for school and for pleasure:

The Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso
I am taking a class in Early American literature where we are focusing on Transatlantic women writers, and in it we read this book by a Spanish woman who most likely would identify as a man if she were afforded today's relaxing of the strict gender binaries that have suffered the world for a long time. Obviously, many people and cultures still hold this strict binary in place, but the T in LGBT is gaining more acceptance as we move forward, which I'm glad for and hope to continue to fight for in the capacity that I feel fortunate to be able to do so as a cisgender woman. But enough about today, Catalina's story is brutal thought simply written. She escapes, steals, seduces, stabs, and kills. If it weren't for her ability to connive in a variety of ways--and her chastity, the most important trait in unmarried women, I've learned, for centuries-- she most likely would not have lived to tell her tale. Though her story was entertaining, she's a bit of an unreliable narrator; this is, in effect, a memoir but also reads sometimes like a bit of a tall tale. I loved the interesting conversations that came from reading this book, and it was quite a fast read, but it's definitely not belles lettres.

Straight Man by Richard Russo
I read this one for my Research Methods class, where we are learning how to exist within a university system, how departments at colleges work, and what it means to be a student/professor within one. This is a novel about a sarcastic, jackass kind of a guy who is the unwilling head of an English department. His life is falling apart. I was amused while reading it, and especially once I got about halfway through it, I flew through the rest. The book's plot turns when he threatens to kill a goose (the duck? the goose?) a day until the English department gets their budget, and from that moment on, I was hooked. The background story about the main character's relationship with his parents/own family weren't as interesting as the rest of the novel. I haven't read anything else by Russo, but I would pick someone else up if I needed something entertaining--this novel definitely entertained. It was a white male, though, writing about the success of white men.

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
We also read this one for my Early American course, and though its plot was entertaining and the writing tight and clear, I was continually outraged at the privilege of the narrator--and therefore probably the privilege of Behn herself. It's difficult to separate the two, though this is a work of fiction based on Behn's experiences in the New World and her friendship with Oroonoko, though that may or may not have been his name in real life. It seems that she tries to tell his story to, in a way, preserve his good name despite the horrors that are enacted upon him. I found it difficult to look past her as the narrator to appreciate his story, though, because of the position of privilege from which it was told. I was constantly aware of the narrator within the text. I did enjoy the discussions we had in class of this book, though felt we could have talked for a long time about its complexities.

Beach Story by Brian Warfield
I was happy to receive a version of this book in the mail, happy to begin to read it, happy to continue to read it, and happy to finish it. I only wish that the time I spent with it could have been more devotional. As in, this is a complex little book that weaves a Pynchon-level complexity I wish I had had more time to devote my attention to. I wanted to relish it more than I felt I could. I more enjoyed it than anything else. The way that Warfield looks at the world is different than the way anyone else sees OR tells it, and this is evident in Beach Story. Maybe more what I wish I could have gotten out of this book is to get into his head even more than this brilliant little complicated but clean novella lets me in.

Secret History or the Horrors of St. Domingo by Leonora Sansay
This one was another one for my Early American class. Sansay lived in what is now Old City Philly, so I was surprised I had never heard of her, though then almost immediately unsurprised because she was a woman writer--and, well, you know. This was an epistolary novel based on letters Sansay wrote to Aaron Burr. She split her real self into two fictional selves, sisters, and wove this interesting tale that combines fact and fiction in an un-unweavable way. While I enjoyed the letters, I enjoyed even more the history that is both spoken of and especially the history around which the tale is woven, in the face of the Haitian revolution.

The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson by Mary Rowlandson
I kept the whole original title here because it's kind of ridiculous and despite the importance of this book to the genre of the Captivity Narrative, and American literature and especially American literature written by women, I'm not a big fan of Mary Rowlandson. This is, in essence, a memoir, and as with Catalina's memoir, and perhaps will all memoirs, it feels like so much has been left out. This is not to say that I don't believe her when Rowlandson claims, towards the end, after she has been ransomed, that she was never treated unchastely, but that what we do get here has clearly and cleverly been crafted to serve a specific purpose. While this is a historically interesting text--for historians and literary scholars--it's not particularly enjoyable. I feel like I've said this of a lot of the things I've read for my Early American class, but I feel like This Is The Place I Can Say That. I VERY MUCH enjoyed talking about all of these texts in the course! I actually even dressed as Mary Rowlandson the class period before Halloween, with a "bible" and some "ground-nuts" in my "pocket"...

The Book of Frank by CAConrad
I had finished my reading for class, and a friend in my poetry workshop, a new friend, had lent me this book earlier in the semester, so I decided next to take it up. I read it in about an hour, maybe less. I was lying in bed, where I do much of my reading-for-pleasure before I sleep, and I figured I would read some of the poems and then sleep, but instead I stayed up reading it. Maybe it even took less than an hour. I returned the book to my friend, so I don't have it in front of me, but since it wasn't my book, I copied down the page numbers of the poems I enjoyed most so that when I DO get a copy of this book, I can dog-ear them. I need to reread it, and I need to own my own copy of this. I've heard for years that this is a great book of poetry, but having never gotten my hands on it myself, I didn't know so until now. I even went and saw CAConrad read a few times during when I lived in Philly--he was at one of my readings once, at Penn Book Center when I read with Mel Bentley and Jacob Bennett. I'm even more grateful than I ever was that I got to listen to him read having read this excellent, indispensable book of poetry that just feels so important, so unique, and in some ways indispensable. As in, it had to be written. It couldn't have not been written.

Avatar: The Search (vol. 1-3) by Gene Young
A friend also lent me these three slim volumes of the story of Zuko's search for his mother. I kept thinking the following things when reading it: 1) Why couldn't they have animated this and made it in to a short film/long episode/series of episodes? 2) The characters are so well developed on the show itself that I could hear them talking out loud to me within the text. 3) SLOW DOWN you are going too fast! Stop to enjoy the illustrations! You're inhaling this! There's not much left!

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