books that changed my life: master's edition

It's been a while since I first began posting about the books that changed my life. You can find the previous posts through the following links: girlhood, adolescence and undergraduate.

When I think about books I read as a master's student, a number of literary and research works come to mind. To be expected as an English major, I suppose. The ones that follow are those I have returned to again and again. Some have shaped my research, while others have added to my understanding of a particular part of my life or planted ideas that stayed with me all through my Ph.D. program.

The Vampyre: A Tale by John Polidori

Monster stories, horror stories, folklore and urban legends have intrigued me since I first read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. One of the reasons I appreciate Supernatural so much is how it blends the elements of these stories with its own mythology and relationships. Polidori's story sparked an interest in researching more about the vampire myth.

I read this story in my very first Master's class: British Romanticism. I don't know what intrigued me more: the vampire story or the story surrounding the tale. This wasn't just another vampire story.Byron, The Shelleys, Polidori at Villa Diodati where Mary Shelley began Frankenstein, which I will come to later. Studying both stories simultaneously provided an interesting backdrop to reading the vampire in a new way for me. I learned how to research through this project and it resulted in my first conference: The International Conference on Romanticism. I don't know that I had any business at that conference but it was an interesting experience, as a master's student, to be included.

What's great about Polidori's story is that the vampire, the Byronic vampire, is monstrous in ways vampires aren't seen in popular culture today. He is manipulative, lustful, voracious, and horrifying. His eyes are yellowish, his skin translucent. This is not Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt as a vampire. There is no remorse. There is no thought beyond satisfying his appetite. Polidori's vampire is ruthless, taking everything he can away from the protagonist including his fiance and eventually his life. It is said that Stoker got much of his inspiration from Polidori's tale. It's pretty easy to see the similarities in terms of the fixation and obsession with the female characters. Though in Polidori's story it seems that the vampire's interest for the fiance is not only about satisfying his lust but also about destroying everything the protagonist loves. Dracula fixates on Mina and while he manipulates Jonathan, the ultimate desire is possessing Mina.

I did an insane amount of research for a paper on this text. I pored over letters, watched documentaries, read a lot of cultural criticism for my first graduate paper. I guess all of these things endeared this story, the first written vampire story, to me. It's fascinating how often I come back to all the things I learned doing the research for that paper, and how the text overlaps with my laterFrankenstein research. This text collided with my love of folklore and urban legends and began making connections among monster stories that I rely on today.

Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

I signed a petition to get an Irish Writers course "on the books" and while I don't think it ever became permanent, reading some great Irish writers stirred me. I was familiar with Eavan Boland's poetry before I read Object Lessons. Her prose is just as fantastic as her poetry and what I learned from her narrative was that place matters. Where you grow up, where you live, how you live, what the expectations are, etc.; all of it changes you as a person and certainly as a writer. Boland writes about her conflictedness with Ireland, a conflictedness I did not understand until I moved away from the South but one that I now know intimately.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Most non-fiction writers I've talked to have mentioned reading something by Didion as a paradigm shifting moment. For me, there was something about her voice and style. It was more than the raw honesty infused in her work; it was the vulnerability. The more I learned about narrative in my Ph.D. program, the more I appreciated Didion's work. Reading The Year of Magical Thinking recently reminded me of the first time I read her essay, "Goodbye to All That." It's interesting as I begin research theories of place more deeply, to look back on how I've been drawn to writings about place as a way to understand something about one's self. Didion's essays are full of questions, ones she often cannot answer. But there's something about HOW she arrives at the questions that seem just as if not MORE important.

I had not read The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton before I took an American Novel course though I'd read other Wharton novels. Writing the final paper for the course on the character Undine Spragg was another one of those incredibly ambitious projects where I tried to apply film theory (Mulvery's theories of "the gaze") to the way Undine worked to gain power. Undine is a social climber and tries desperately to find a way into upper-crust society. She uses her looks to get what she wants but what she wants often exceeds what the men in her life are able to give her. Everything she wants always seems just out of reach. It's a novel where there are no real "good guys." The men in the novel use Undine; she uses them. No one wins. But it's Wharton and well-written and tragic, like all her women. Undine is unusual, though, much more driven and power-hungry and ruthless than many of Wharton's females. I imagine her being played by someone like Rose Byrne.