Tag Archives: sexuality

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: Why you might choose cake over this novel. If you were me.

download-2As evidenced by the three stickers of award-endorsing-approval on the cover, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is well regarded by people who control stickers on books. Also by all of the young adults on the internet. And then all the readers on Goodreads. Why do they like it? It’s a romance, a bildungsroman, a redemption for the weirdo (and don’t all readers of YA identify as weirdos, themselves?), an affirmation of family, an exploration of identity in all its shapes. Continue reading

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The Paying Guests: Books to Avoid Reading On Your First Week of Carpool

Underwear Fashion

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is set in 1922 London. Setting is important here because the backdrop of postwar changes in economics and class, social and gender expectations and disaffection with the grand truths of justice deepen the themes explored in this erotic noir. (I didn’t realize I was choosing a novel with erotic scenes when I picked it up from my shelf (the last of the holiday haul), though I ought to have known better having read – and enjoyed – Waters’ The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. Reading it during my first weeks of a carpool positions me to give this advice: be prepared to squirm for ten odd pages).

The novel follows the life of Frances as she struggles to maintain the family home in the absence of male income (see Remains of the Day). Forced to take on ‘paying guests,’ she and her mother are joined in their aging home by the lower-class, freer spirits of Lilian and Leonard Barber. If the first half of the novel traces the budding… relationships between Frances and the couple, the second half takes a decidedly different turn in exploring love tested not by societal expectation, but by conscience and trust. Rather than fuss too much about who loves whom, the novel instead explores the nervousness of (new) love and the doubt that accompanies it (and it goes to some plot extremes to do so).

I very much enjoyed this one. Well crafted, expert character development, written with careful and evocative language (*cough*) it is a delight to be immersed in.  Though I’ll admit that after A. pointed out the frequency of the word ‘queer’ in the novel I was somewhat distracted by its repetition (a project for some student to trace and explore diction in Waters’ work – the way she works the connotations of the early 20th century against that of the contemporary reader).

In entirely unrelated matters, I finished reading the novel in the campus gardens during lunch today. In writing this post a bug has flown out of my hair and now I can’t stop checking to make sure there aren’t more insects all. over. me. Such are the hazards of having this literary vice.

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Dracula: Everything you thought you knew about vampires is wrong (views on Twilight remain unchanged)

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It’s my parents’ fault that I don’t know anything about Dracula. I thought I knew little bits about the story from pop culture, but then I remembered I don’t know anything about pop culture because my parents didn’t let me watch movies or TV. And that I didn’t, truthfully, know anything about the story. Okay, my argument falls apart because my parents certainly encouraged me to read. And widely. And I could have read Dracula before my 32nd year. But I didn’t. Like the undergrad student I was chatting with yesterday, I assumed I’d have my whole life to read the pile of ‘classics’ I always meant to read but had never bothered. You know, the kind of book you pick up at the used bookstore for $2 only to let it languish on your shelf for years because you think it probably won’t be that good because it was written so long ago and besides there’s the hip new Twilight thing to read.

No, it wasn’t a brush with mortality that made me decide it was finally time to read a classic work. It was S. and D. independently and within the same week citing it as a terrific read. And me feeling hugely embarrassed when reading the children’s version  (not a paid advert btw) that I had no idea who the two women or five heroes referenced. I laboured under the view that Dracula was about a vampire and a castle and that was that.

I. was. wrong. This book is about so much! And it’s so enjoyable to read! Enjoyable but also scary. I had a couple of nights of bat-related nightmares (for real), so if you scare easily (or at all) I might suggest avoiding reading this one right before bed, or perhaps preparing yourself to jolt awake convinced you hear flapping (probably compounded in my case in that I *did* once wake up to a bat flapping about my head after it got in through a cracked window. I DIGRESS).

It’s about science: As our heroes attempt to work out just what in the fuck is going on with all the blood loss and mysterious nighttime shenanigans they challenge positivist assumptions and make space for other kinds of knowledge: “It is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Well, sort of. Maybe. They still seem to use all the methods and approaches of Good Science in their quest, but Dr. Van Helsing makes it clear that there are limits to accepted truth.

It’s about gender: Oh what oh what to do with women. And their pesky desire to contribute, be independent, make meaningful lives. They must. be. eaten.

It’s about sexuality: Man-bat comes in the night and slips up under the covers to eat ladies. Ladies love. Men love. But usually only by engaging in passionate discussion and hand kisses.

It’s about form: letters! journals! phonograph records! meeting minutes! Look at all the ways plot and character can be developed in the pieced together epistolary form. There were a few moments where it felt analogous to the 2016 plot wherein characters have to explain why no one has a cellphone or cellphone reception in order to make the plot believable: characters kept explaining why they were bothering to write down what had just happened in such detail so as to convince the reader that this was not, after all, literary convention but instead the raw goods of vampire attack.

So whether it’s genuine interest or deep social shame for not having done so already (or, better still, fear that you’ll die before you read it) that motivates you to read Stoker’s classic work, seize on the interest and get it! (I’d add that I ‘lost’ my library copy (aka it was in the car and I assumed it was lost forever because it was under the seat) and found a free version online in under two minutes – so degree of difficulty in obtaining a copy can’t be an excuse here). That way the next time some punky punk of a reader gets excited about Twilight or True Blood or Insert-One-of-Bazillions-of-Vampire-Cultural-Objects-Here you can roll your eyes and explain “well, X work may be great, but it’s derivative of Stoker’s original work in Y way.” I look forward to your comments explaining the intertextuality of Stoker and how he’s really referencing Y work. Or how Twilight is in its own right a classic work. Ha.

 

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My Brilliant Friend

2014-09-13 16.48.27I listen to a lot of podcasts: Longform, This American Life, Radiolab, Slate Political/Cultural/DoubleX Gabfest, Wait wait don’t tell me, Hardcore History, The House, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Planet Money… (& Serial, duh, but back before it was cool, double duh). And most of these podcasts include some kind of ‘recommendations’ section where the hosts will suggest something they’re enjoying and think listeners might enjoy too. Most of the time the suggestions are cultural objects (occasionally they’re hilarious (and lazy) suggestions like ‘nutmeg,’ or ‘leggings’.) But in the past year Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (beginning with My Brilliant Friend) has been recommended on almost all of them. There’s only so many times a book can be suggested before you feel like you’re ignoring a fated read. So I coopted their recommendations as my own and urged  *my* brilliant friend S. read with me. And then my other brilliant book club friends, too.

So we’ve all be reading it and I’m anxious to hear what these smart women have to say about the book. Because that’s what reading My Brilliant Friend taught me: that we don’t trust our own sense of what we like, or don’t like, or want, or don’t want, half as much as we trust that of our friends.

Back it up – what’s the book about? Written by an Italian author, the novel is set in a working class Naples in the 1960s-ish (I’m guessing a bit on the date). It follows two young girls, Elena and Lila as they mature themselves and in their friendship. Narrated by Elena, the novel focuses on their development from school girls to sexually mature women in the midst of changing social and economic conditions. The novel explores fascinating questions in friendship: how does friendship change when one friend gets married? when one friend has access to (much) more money than another? when one has sex?  [I’ll admit that when this description (or something like it) was offered to me in all of these recommendations I thought *yawn* but the books (at least the first) are well worth the read.]

In the particular setting of Naples the significant division between the two friends is access to education. Both Elena and Lila begin in school together, but as they age only Elena’s family has the resources (and sees the value) in continuing to send Elena to school. While both girls achieve extraordinary academic success, Elena views Lila as naturally intellectually curious (Lila teachers herself Greek!) and sees herself as an academic-imposter, succeeding only by virtue of her proximity to Lila.

The extent of Elena’s envy for Lila bothered me (and S.), at least bothered me at first. I assured myself that I’d never harboured such feelings of jealousy for any of my friends… But the more I considered their relationship I saw that in the envy of Lila’s beauty and her intellectual gifts Elena doesn’t desire something she doesn’t also have (Elena’s potentially untrustworthy narrative includes unimpeachable evidence of her academic success in the form of report cards) – rather she desires the confidence she assumes Lila has, she wants to feel like she’s good enough and to believe it.

Putting thematic questions aside, the book has a complex and nuanced narrative voice as this reader struggled to decide whether to trust Elena, or how far to trust her. Having been in my own 13 year old mind, I can assure you it’s not a  trustworthy place: perceptions of self are necessarily skewed. The novel manages this narrative tension through balancing Elena’s self-depracting, self-loathing perception against demonstrable outward evidence countering this view. Reminding us of the thematic issue of how much we assume we are (the only) deficient one, or that every one else (*cough* Lila) has their shit together. When… they don’t.

As if to prove it – I was tempted to write “It says something about my reading habits in the last four months that S., who had her first baby in the summer, finished the first book before me.” As if it was a contest about reading. Or friendship. Or life. (but isn’t it?)

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