Posts in reading
Books that Changed My Life: Ph.D. Edition

  A few years ago, I created several lists of books that changed my life: girlhood, adolescence, undergraduate and M.A. editions. When a friend from grad school recently asked for some of my favorite literature and theory books, I realized that I never wrote about books from my Ph.D. or later. (I believe this is because I wrote most of these lists in 2008, the same year I finished my Ph.D. and didn't have time to reflect on the experiences of my Ph.D. reading). Most of  this list is comprised of reading for coursework or my dissertation process. I don't think I read many books just for fun for five years. However, there were books I read for class that were enjoyable, challenging, and changed my perspective on things.

When people find out I teach English, they often ask me my favorite book and while I feel like it's tough to choose, the book I come back to again and again is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The biggest reason for this is the role it played in my Ph.D. program and research process. I have told this story before.

Reading Frankenstein again at the moment I needed it rescued me from doubt, writer's block, and more during my Ph.D. studies. Writing about the novel gave me back my voice, but getting lost in the story, made me think about all the ways we fail and how the consequences of our reaction and experience of failure shape us. It's also a really intriguing novel for students, once they get past how they're supposed to read it. I love teaching it.

One of my first semesters in Ph.D. coursework I took a Postmodern Literature course, which was amazing not only because of the texts we read, (and I didn't love all of them) but also because of the professor. The final essay I wrote for the class began an interest in place and architecture that shows up in a lot of my research. But the book that really captivated me was a collection of A.M. Homes short stories, The Safety of Objects. I had not until then read many collections of short stories, certainly not ones that were as sad and weird and honest as Homes' are.

Penelople Lively's Making it Up has a strange spot on this list because I did not read it as part of class, though it contributed it significantly to my creative non-fiction and to my understanding of narrative and story. Lively calls the book an anti-memoir and she imagines the what-might-have-beens of her life while also revealing truths about herself. Narratively, it's ambitious and there are times it feels like a device, but the overall effect is strange and powerful and worthwhile.

The Dream Sequence by Kate Hunter is another anomaly because I'm not sure exactly why I picked it up other than it was a novella that sounded strange. In the story, a woman wakes up with amnesia and consults a witch doctor who tells her she has been cursed. It's in the protagonist's interactions with other characters who recognize her but that she doesn't know, that compelling questions about identity arise. I've been mentioning this story in conversations lately and realized just how much it stayed with me. There's a fascinating commentary on memory and why we long to connect with others, and scenes I come back to again and again.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I read this one summer for a class that really bent my mind. We were studying cognitive poetics, which asks you, as a reader, to consider how you are processing the text as you read it, the contexts of your understanding as you form a relationship with the text. It was very mind-bendy for me. And I fell in love with this novel. The narrative is non-linear and it's a novel that is conscious of itself in these really interesting ways because it's attempting to explore Nietzche's idea that our experiences happen cyclically in a state of eternal recurrence; everything has happened before and will continue to happen over and over again.

Pierre Bourdieu's books, Distinction:  A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste and The Cultural Field of Production were hugely influential and remain the basis for some of my theories on social media participation. It took me a long time to become comfortable with his work, and I'm still not always sure I have a strong handle on some of it.

Technologies of the Gendered Body by Anne Basalmo, and Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, particularly Rosi Braidotti's chapter "Monsters, Mothers, and Machines" were instrumental in deepening my interest in and understanding of feminist theory. I relied on both texts to inform my work on Frankenstein, but beyond that I started to feel that not only did I get what the women in these texts were arguing but that my voice could belong to the chorus. Because the project came at a time when I felt like I'd lost my muchness, my voice, my ability to say something, these texts remain an important part of my scholarly work then and now.

Yi Fu Tuan's Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience entered my scholarly life unexpectedly and there's not a day that I don't think about or try to teach students about Tuan's theories. In the Postmodern Lit course I took above, I wrote an essay on the ways in which spaces, architectures, locations in two texts reveal something about the characters and their psychology. It was the first time I considered place in a way that was experiential but also embodied and gendered. I had not yet read Tuan's work and so much of my essay focuses on gendered spaces. If I'd had Tuan's theories to add to the work I was doing, I might have continued to work on the piece. Years later when I would first read Tuan, it felt like I finally understood my conflictedness about being in-between places. It would take longer for me to theorize that conflict but eventually, I used Tuan's work in my dissertation and subsequent article on place.

I enjoy writing about what I read, and recommending books to others. I love discovering new voices, new perspectives, books that make me think, ask questions, entertain me and capture my imagination. Not all texts do all things. In writing about books that have impacted me, I'm able to articulate some of my reading experiences in a way that inspires others to think about their own reading histories. Why do we read what we do? How do we allow it to change us?

What books throughout your life as a reader have changed you?

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#reverb13: reading challenge

Challenge: Did you take on a new challenge?  What was it?  Is there a challenge you deliberately avoided?  What do you want to do to challenge yourself in 2014?

I set a goal to read 50 books this year. As of now, I've read 32 so it seems unlikely that I will read 18 books this month to achieve that goal, but I've certainly read more than I expected to and have enjoyed the challenge of reading as much as possible. 

I will repeat this challenge in 2014, though I may lower the number to something more achievable like 35 books. 

Some of the best books I read this year and would highly recommend include:

The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson ,  is a delightfully funny novel about a man who escapes the old folks' home in which he lives on his 100th birthday. The novel is about Allan Karllson's life and is well thought out and clever, and not at all sentimental look at one's life. Beyond Karllson, the other characters are vibrant and rich, and full of interesting stories of their own. I've been recommending this book to everyone I know, and if you're looking for something to read over Christmas, I think you'd find yourself entertained. 

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, is quite possibly one of the best books I read all year. It would be a disservice to classify this as simply a coming of age story, though there are certainly those elements present. It is so much more than that, more than a love story, it is a sensitive, powerful story of growing up, of loss and grief and family. I particularly thought the relationship between the sisters was compelling and authentic. Once I started reading this, I couldn't put it down. 

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I finished this book in 2 days because I wanted to know what happened to the heartbroken and heartbreaking girl, Victoria. Seeing such a true portrayal of someone who desperately wants to believe in love and be loved but who feels unworthy of such emotion was staggering. There's so much in this story that contributes to the emotional pull of the narrative. Ultimately, this is a story of how we help, hurt and love one another. It is about relationships and the things we carry into and out of them. 

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I understand why this novel won the National Book Award in 2012. Much like a detective story, we search along with 13 year-old Joe and his father, a tribal judge, for the person responsible for an unthinkable act of violence, the rape of Joe's mother. Like Joe, we need answers: where, why, who? The where becomes central to the story as there are legal challenges over jurisdiction, depending on where the rape occurs. As Joe gets swept into the investigation, and his own quest for justice, the novel reminded me at times of the film "Stand by Me" based on Stephen King's short story, "The Body". 

Joe is surrounded by his friends, Cappy, Zack and Angus as well as several hilarious family members. As much as the story is about what makes people violent and the unraveling an act of violence can do to lives, families, it is also about boyhood and friendship, about pushing the boundaries of your sense of morality, of justice. There are no easy answers, and the uncertainty of adolescence acts as both a metaphor and a backdrop about the difficult questions, emotions and politics we face in life. 

I also really enjoyed Hemingway's Girl by Erica Robuck and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

What should I put on my to read list for 2014? I really want to read Donna Tartt's novel Goldfinch, but what else? 

 

Here are some of the other books I've read in 2013. 

what I've read since January

I set a goal in January to read 20 books this year. I've revised that goal and now hope to read 50. So far, I've read 17 books. Here are my recommendations:

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifke Brunt : Really loved this book! June, the character through whose eyes we see the action of the novel, is weird and out of place and imaginative. She is a thoughtful, interesting girl and as she learns the secrets of her family and the world, I grieve with her for all she doesn't understand. And yet, she is so incredibly insightful. Reminiscent but not derivative of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It would be a disservice to classify this as simply a coming of age story, though there are certainly those elements present. It is so much more than that; more than a love story, it is a sensitive, powerful story of growing up, of loss and grief and family. I particularly thought the relationship between the sisters was compelling and authentic. 

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson : The writing here is strong, descriptive and rich. Set in Alabama, it felt familiar and authentic. There is a sadness and darkness in this story that is definitely in the genre of suburban gothic and I read this quickly, wanting to know how the mystery ended. Worth a read.

The Dinner by Herman Koch : I read this novel on my mother's recommendation and was intrigued from the very first moment the narrator, Paul Lohman begins his story. He is a genuinely unlikeable and unreliable narrator and yet there are moments when I, as a reader, empathized with him. I enjoyed the pace of the novel; the action occurs over the span of a few hours as well as through memories, flashbacks and side stories. The story builds suspense and once the reader discovers what all the fuss has been about, all that is left is to watch the chaos unfold. At its center, the novel is about family but also explores the nature v. nurture debate in interesting and sad ways. There are definitely moments where descriptions and actions feel vague and uncertain but I prefer such a plot to a more heavy-handed one. The characters make some questionable choices there are moments where you wonder if anything the narrator has said can be considered as truthful or merely filtered through his own understanding of morality. Very dramatic and intriguing, worth a read.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh :  I finished this book in 2 days because I wanted to know what happened to the heartbroken and heartbreaking girl, Victoria. Seeing such a true portrayal of someone who desperately wants to believe in love and be loved but who feels unworthy of such emotion was staggering. It makes sense that she would take to putting her emotions into flowers and what they represent because she cannot express herself accurately enough through other means. 

Ultimately, this is a story of how we help, hurt and love one another. It is about relationships and the things we carry into and out of them. Highly recommended. 

The Round House by Louis Erdrich : Not having read any of Erdrich's previous novels, I was not familiar with the characters here, but it did not matter because they are so rich seen through the eyes of the 13-year-old narrator, Joe. Much like a detective story, we search along with Joe and his father, a tribal judge, for the person responsible for an unthinkable act of violence, the rape of Joe's mother. Like Joe, we need answers: where, why, who? The where becomes central to the story as there are legal challenges over jurisdiction, depending on where the rape occurs. As Joe gets swept into the investigation, and his own quest for justice, the novel reminded me at times of the film "Stand by Me" based on Stephen King's short story, "The Body". Joe is surrounded by his friends, Cappy, Zack and Angus as well as several hilarious family members. As much as the story is about what makes people violent and the unraveling an act of violence can do to lives, families, it is also about boyhood and friendship, about pushing the boundaries of your sense of morality, of justice. There are no easy answers, and the uncertainty of adolescence acts as both a metaphor and a backdrop about the difficult questions, emotions and politics we face in life. 

Erdrich won the National Book Award for this novel and it is clear from the first chapter, why. 

 

What are you reading? What should I be reading? 

 

wider than our views of it

There have been many times in my life that I wished for clarity, for some kind of understanding and times I wished for reassurance and peace with choices I was making. Many of these feelings have come at night, perhaps I allow the quiet then and am more open to listening with my heart. I have been trying to write about this for some time, now and I finally decided to break these thoughts into multiple posts.

2000
There was a night in Paris when it was unseasonably warm so I had the tiny balcony doors open and was sitting in a chair looking out at the people walking on the busy streets, some to dinner, others to their homes after work; some tourists probably looking for the Musee d'Orsay had taken a wrong turn. I had been away from home (Alabama) for some time and was feeling sad and lonely. The clarity I thought I would find in unfamiliar space was not telling me what I wanted to hear. I had decided to return home though I hadn't told anyone I was planning to leave. It was something I was turning over in my mind, considering what leaving this place, the place I thought I would love but that ended up showing me all the things that were not working in my life, would mean. As I looked out on the street that night, a feeling came over me and I just knew that going home and ending the relationship I was in were decisions I needed to make. I bought a plane ticket the next week, but the relationship lingered for about a month in a tumultuous and terrible form before it finally ended a week before my 23rd birthday.

3 years later
A few nights before I left for Illinois, in the middle of a summer of a storms, I laid in the driveway, soaked in rain and joked about making angels. I was about to leave once again and for an extended period of time the only place I'd ever called home. I was leaving the place I'd lived the longest and finally, finally felt rooted and I didn't know exactly what I was heading toward but it just felt like something I had to do. I could have chosen any of the 3 grad schools where I was accepted and even as I look back, I'm not sure exactly why I chose one over the other; though I could give a list of explanations and reasons, it was a feeling that led me to lay in the driveway that night and let the rain wash over me. I knew somehow that though I was sad and anxious about saying goodbye, about moving on and starting new, that doing so was simply the only thing I could do.

Recently
I've been thinking a lot about choices we make, about lives we imagine for ourselves and why one moment seems more right than others. I was re-watching Season 5 of Supernatural, while this season was on a brief hiatus and it's all about fate, free will and destiny, raising questions about how much power we have over our lives. In some ways, it's nice to think that everything will work out, that our choices will eventually lead us to where we're supposed to be. (Though what "supposed to be" means and who's deciding these things is still a bit of a mystery within my belief system). On the other hand, I'm quite fond of the idea that my choices matter.

I certainly don't believe we can do nothing and have our lives iron themselves out. I also believe that things happen we cannot foresee, nor can we understand how events will alter our lives completely. I am re-reading Thoreau's Walden and there is a fantastic line in his conclusion where he writes, "The universe is wider than our views of it." And maybe that's it, where faith comes in. We make decisions; we dream; we set goals and try to accomplish them and all that we can't see about where that work will take us is what we have to believe in.