Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shakespeare Saturday: Beware the Ides of March

                                             Remember March, the ides of March remember:
                                               Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
  - Brutus, Julius Caesar, IV. iii.

    Earlier today, I was thinking of this article from the Poetry Foundation, detailing how poet John Keats would spend his Sundays reading Shakespeare instead of going to church (Keats and I have this in common). It occurred to me to do a similar bout of Shakespeare worship on my blog and write a weekly recap of 'my life in Shakespeare' each week. Why not, right?

    Naturally, I had one particular Shakespeare play in mind this week, given that the Ides of March came and went: none other than 10th grade English class MVP Julius Caesar.

With the play being forever immortalized by those same high school English classes, their allusion in the title of John Green superhit The Fault in Our Stars (which I've never read- I assume the intertext ends there), and film classic Mean Girls-

-I'm left wondering: do 'the kids' still love this play? I'm pretty sure it was the first Shakespeare play I'd ever read, and I know that I loved it at the time. It kick-started my mild teenaged obsession with ancient Rome. I might still love Albert Camus' Caligula more than Julius Caesar, but that's neither here nor there.

It was my intention to re-read the play on March 15, because I'm a sucker for a synchronous gimmick. I ended up being distracted, and only skimmed it while listening to the BBC Production. Even still, I was stunned by the power of the language, the meta-theatrical themes of politics as performance, et al. It deserves a re-read, but it's admittedly hard to prioritize when I still have new-to-me Shakespeare plays on the docket. The fault in my reading list, amirite?

Other Shakespeare things from this week:

Totally coveting this 'Shakespeare Love Quotes' mug, from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild (which is a great name, and I totally wish I could steal it for a band name, the bastards):

I have a wedding coming up. I wasn't planning on having a registry, but if literary mugs are a thing I can request, I just might start one.

Anyway, I also stumbled across this great photo set, based on the Three Witches in Macbeth (my favorite Shakespeare play):

from frerin, on tumblr

I feel like this set perfectly captures the moody, foreboding gloom of the play. Also, yeah, I'm totally a sucker for photosets like these. I regret nothing.

Next time on Shakespeare Saturday: erm, I don't know. I desperately need to get back to the Wars of the Roses cycle, so, probably that.

Until then, rest you merry!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The better to read with, my dear: contests, what I'm reading, and my latest haul!

In the past month, I've developed a new hobby: entering contests and giveaways. Not only is it a fun way to roll the proverbial dice and see what you can win, but it's also a great way to discover new blogs and books. It's like gambling, but all it costs is your time!
and possibly your EpiPen.
So far, two of my wins have resulted in some serious joie de livre. The first was a pair of eyeglasses from polette eyewear! They have some truly beautiful frames, with some for as low as $6.99 for frames and lenses! Here I was, paying, like, $60 at a box store like a damned chump.

It's also really hard to take selfies without lens flare on glasses, I've learned.
It's so nice to be able to see again. Reading has gotten easier, and it's wonderful to see the details in life, from the eerie, Hoth-like moonscape of Halifax this winter to the '90s Vanilla Ice lookalike who stared at me on the bus while eating from a box of cereal.
The other contest I won was a copy of The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, courtesy of Tor Publishing!
I remembered reading about those uncovered fairy tales back in 2012, and I'm a sucker for fairy tales in general, so I'm really excited to receive this book and get to reading. Maybe Disney will acquire the rights to adapt some of them and finally release the parents and teachers of the world from their ongoing hostage situation with Frozen.

It's like the Iran hostage crisis in every way.
 My latest two book hauls resulted in books that range from the ridiculous to the sublime:

I bought the Camille Paglia book almost as a lark, feeling open-minded enough to do some "devil's advocate" reading, and being a creative nonfiction/cultural theory junkie, figured it might be okay. Except that when I cracked it open on the bus home from work and read her apologist stance on campus rape, I almost threw the book clear across the aisle at some unwitting undergrad. I seriously considered just throwing the book into one of our mountainous snowbanks, but didn't want to risk an impressionable mind finding it. Now I don't know what to do with it. I'm open to suggestions.

I'm currently reading Night Bites as my Cafeteria reading, and so far, it's been pretty outstanding. Filled with vampire stories written by women, it's, thankfully, no Twilight. It features some inventive re-interpretations of Dracula and the vampire mythos in general, and tackles issues of motherhood, death, and sex. It also fulfills my 'scary book' reading challenge, so, that's nice.

The other books seemed interesting to me, especially Darwin's Bastards, though I haven't had the chance to crack it open yet. I love Margaret Atwood's nonfiction, never finished Sexing the Cherry, and used to spend my in-between class time in university holed up in the library with a coffee, reading the poetry in Wascana Review. I'm definitely pleased with this latest haul.

As for what I've recently read, sadly, this past month has been pretty slow-going. I hate getting in those "don't feel like reading" funks, which usually means, for me, that I'm only reading three books in a month.

The two that I read:

 The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

The last book club selection was Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, a bildungsroman featuring a precocious child in search of his real father. While this is a weirdly prevalent '00s literary fiction trope, it managed to feel fresh and inventive, due to DeWitt's use of pop culture (Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is ubiquitous in the text, and inspires some of the central plot structure), as well as her deconstruction of language. I had the odd experience of being the only person in my book club who was really enthusiastic about the material, but that might have been partially because it gave me the opportunity to make lots of Tom Cruise jokes. The first section of the book is deftly experimental, which made me more excited as a writer than a reader, but DeWitt's bold storytelling choices definitely made this book stand out from lesser books tackling the same thematic tones.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
I'm a sucker for roadtrips, as well as roadtrip narratives, so I'm not sure why it took me so many years after purchasing this book to actually read it. I'd read some of Steinbeck's work as a teenager, but didn't engage with it all that much. My friend was reading Travels with Charley at the same time, for her book club, and didn't seem enamoured with it. I loved it. Steinbeck's prose and observations about the landscape and people of a changing America sparkled on the page, and made me feel as though I was with him, driving along in the passenger seat. The development of mobile home communities, emerging domestic technology, the construction of suburbs, the encroachment of urbanization on the rural, and, of course, the issues surrounding gentrification, are all tackled in the sprawling prose. Among those things that I'd taken for granted as mid-20th-century reality were analyzed and ruminated upon in ways that I found fascinating. It's my favorite book that I've read so far this year.

Next on my blog (which will not take another month, promise): The Night Bites anthology, Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Megan Daum's The Unspeakable.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Non-challenge books for January/early February

It's mildly alarming to realize that, so far, my 2015 reading skews mostly to non-challenge books.

To be fair, though, two of these books were my 'read-at-work' books. One, Austerlitz, was for my book club. Henry VI part I and II were pages I pulled up (via the exhaustive and wonderful MIT Shakespeare Archive) during slow periods at work, sneaking glances over to its tab to immerse myself in some War of the Roses goodness while waiting for the phone to ring.

Individually, what I thought of each work:


I was working at Chapters-Indigo when Joyland was released. I'd sneak over the horror section and mentally shop for what I'd get with my discount, even if I couldn't thumb through the books while on the clock. Joyland seemed to have a bit of buzz surrounding it, and more than a few people brought it to the check-out. I didn't end up getting it, though, so when I found it at Value Village at the beginning of January, I thought: work cafeteria read! You know, the highest honor bestowed on literature.

I didn't love it. I love a good bildungsroman, a carnival setting, and a touch of pulpy noir, don't get me wrong. My problem is that I thought Joyland was horror. Halfway through the book, I lay down my chicken salad wrap, and, exasperated, thought: but when is it going to get scary? Spoiler: it isn't. Still, those thematic tensions must make for a pretty compelling read, right? Unfortunately, it didn't, really. The pulp wasn't pulp enough, I didn't feel as though the protagonist grew altogether much. The carny lingo, both real and imaginary, did add colorful vernacular to the pages. I felt like Marge from The Simpsons when she met Stephen King: "Well, when you go back to horror will you let me know?"

Henry VI, Part 1 and 2

I'm an unapologetic Shakespeare fangirl. When I initially started my English major, I was determined not to study Shakespeare. 2edgy4me, right? Except that I also started binge-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and received an angry e-mail from the department. Something about breadth of literary history and nobody puts Shakesy in a corner.
I reluctantly registered for a Shakespeare survey course, thinking that it might enhance my (already wonderful) TNG experience. My mind, subsequently, was blown by the majority of the Shakespeare canon. My goal became to read it all.

I admittedly have a difficult time with the history plays. I can blow through a Shakespearean tragedy like nobody's business, but the history plays are a slog. I mean, yes, Richard III is one of the best things ever written, but the rest were much harder for me to get through. Until I got to these. I loved them, read them with rapt fascination, and found myself only wishing that Joan of Arc had played a bigger role. It's bloody, it's military intrigue, it's plainly awesome.


Austerlitz was initially painful for me to read. Not emotionally, but in terms of slogging through the material. I wanted to give up, but I was book club duty-bound (and feeling guilty about having abandoned more than one book club selection). Further, I love historiographic metafiction. I was determined to get through the dense, experimental prose, the unending enumerations, the reflective stream of the narrative. It wasn't easy.

Each scene is a meticulous diorama. All the disparate aspects are meant to reflect the dual horror of memory and forgetting. It was well done, even if I didn't enjoy it. I mean, it won a National Book Critics Circle Award, an honour second only to 'Tiffany Ramone Workplace Cafeteria Reading Selection'.

One of the nicest things about having read it is that I appreciated it much more after discussing it with my book club. It highlighted the importance and joy of what it is to read, and talk about our reading: that even as a private activity, there's much to be shared, and always more to be learned. Treasure book club discussions!

Even if we all have our Skinner moments when it comes to meticulously crafted dioramas.

Anatomy of a Girl Gang

My second workplace cafeteria read, except this one had me in the awkward position of occasionally pretending not to cry in a crowded public area. I was initially drawn to this book based on a CBC Books interview with the author, wherein they discussed the Shakespearean elements she'd brought to the page. I was immediately sold. A re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, but with all-female gang members in Vancouver? Umm, yes please.

The prose is raw and quick to read, with a number of stylistic differences as the narrative shifts between the gang members. One of the aspects I loved most was the personification of Vancouver. Like the gang and the prose, it is at once hostile, menacing, fragile, and rife with volatile beauty. It houses the girls and offers them hope, while simultaneously threatening to devour them whole. Knowing that it was based, in part, on Romeo and Juliet made me prepared for an unhappy ending, but the bittersweet resolution still left me ugly crying on the bus.

My 2015 Reading Challenge

One of my friends (I forget whom, if it's you and you're reading this, I apologize for precluding you from the glory of a blog mention), posted this Pop Sugar reading challenge to Facebook:

 and I was thrilled! It had everything I wanted and needed in a book challenge: breadth, feasibility, a checklist, words. Then I noticed something else it included:


This filthy-bathroom graffiti has a point!

Because, let's face it, default maleness is still totally A Thing in the literary world, despite the myriad successes of an exceptional number of female YA authors in recent memory, and y'know, actual, literal centuries of writing by women.

“Go crazy!” this list seemed to say. “Do something as novel as deigning to read a book written by a woman.” (I imagined the list saying this while twirling its evil moustache and holding a drink, like some Don Draper figure with a Tom Selleck face).

Anyway, I decided, instead, to take the inverse action that this list seemed to (smugly, Selleck-ly) suggest. Every book I choose for this list will meet the criteria of the individual checklist item and
also be written by a woman. Except that the lone “written by a woman” item will now be “a book written by a man”.

I mean, obviously.

And before anyone gets upset, because this is someone writing about feminism on the internet: no, I am not actually a misandrist. I do not believe that this PopSugar reading challenge is a massive obstacle for feminism to overcome. I do think that women are not as widely read and reviewed as male authors because, well, facts support that assertion. You can Encarta it. I wouldn't lie to you.

Anyway, I'm excited to read my selections. I'm also excited to share my responses to them with you! I'm aiming to get through the whole list this year, and I've also already done some reading from outside this list.

Monday, January 19, 2015

My Year In Books: 2014

Writing the first entry of a new blog is a strange undertaking. How to set the tone for the blog? Do you make some sort of formal introduction? I've always sucked at journaling, so personal blogging- doing something beyond hitting the 'reblog' button on tumblr and fancying myself a half-assed curator of feminist quotes and Beyonce gifs- feels strange. I'm not sure how I fare at introductions, either.

But, hey, I wanted a way to track my 2015 reading, so, here it is. Some sort of book blog, in all its glory!

To begin at the beginning: in 2014, I'd wanted to read 114 books. This challenge was an update of 2009, wherein I had magically (read: coincidentally) managed to read 109 books. In the following years, I was an English major, so reading for fun and tracking my reading wasn't really in the realm of possibility (nor was anything beyond drinking obscene amounts of coffee and obsessively Pinterest-ing while I avoided writing my essays).

So, 2014 hits, and so does a motivation-destroying battle with clinical depression. One of the side-effects of depression is difficulty with reading and concentration (I believe Sylvia Plath wrote about this particular thing in The Bell Jar, a book which I re-read in the midst of this same depression battle and found way funnier than I did as a sullen teenager). There were definitely days where I would lay down my books after an hour of reading, having absorbed nothing. Under such squalid mental conditions, language becomes an inaccessible commodity.

So, the 83 books. Not all were born great, not all achieved greatness, and not all had greatness thrust upon them. Titus Andronicus surprised me with its crude violence. I loved it. I expected to fall in love with John Green at the first read, yet was left grossly underwhelmed (with some faith renewed by the time I finished Looking for Alaska). Sonia Sanchez wowed me with her play with form in her Morning Haiku. A book I'd found at the hotel where I worked, Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants, impressed me with its variety and lack of nationalistic sentiment.

                                    A selection of my 2014 reading list, from my Goodreads.

I'd read widely last year, with my first forays into Young Adult fiction (as an adult, at least), and a plethora of Creative Nonfiction (which I've always loved, but didn't get to read in my literature program) seeming to dominate. By the end of the year, though, I was exhausted, especially in the last months, where my mad scramble to get close to 114 meant I was reading up to 5 books a day.

I wanted a new kind of challenge, one that didn't necessarily depend on quantity of books read. I needed some sort of external direction in what I read. I'm in one book club (despite my blog name), but we don't read or meet quickly enough to keep up with the amount I want to read, in general. Thankfully, just before the end of the year, I found a new challenge. What did I find? Tune in to the next post!