My year in books: 2016

This was an interesting exercise last year, so I thought I’d do it again.  Obviously, 2016 is widely considered to have been a pretty terrible year for the world, and it was also a challenging year for me, personally, and for many people I know and love.  There will no doubt be a lot of thinkpieces in the next few weeks about what’s happened, and what we’ve all learned (or not learned), especially because some of what happened isn’t going to end in 2017, and we’ll all have to deal with the long-term consequences of things like Trump and Brexit. I look forward to anxiety-reading all about this in the next three weeks. (I enjoyed this piece from Slate, although it was published in July, back when Trump was just a nightmare and not a terrifying, Orwellian reality.)

2016 y u no end soon?
Is it over yet? Source.

All this preamble is to say that I was curious about whether my reading patterns would somehow reflect the crap year we all just lived through. I know that there was one major change, which I didn’t track through Goodreads: I read many more escapist romance novels this year than I ever have before. I don’t tend to count those toward my book total for the year because they are a) embarrassing to list in a public forum (sorry, I’m still kind of a snob), and b) I breeze through them so quickly that sometimes it’s like does this even count as reading. But in my own personal Terrible Months of July, August, September, and October, that was really all that I was reading, in between a lot of crying and anxiety-ranting at friends and family. (Anxiety-verbing is mostly what I spend my time doing, to be honest. Thanks, friends and family, for putting up with me.)

So anyway, my official number for this year as of December 8, 2016 is 80 books read, but it’s a bit higher than that, unofficially speaking. There’s more of a numbers breakdown below. Aside from reading more escapist fare this year (in addition to the uncounted romance novels, there was a lot of Georgette Heyer and YA fantasy), I don’t see very many patterns in my reading. As befits a year where a lot of things fell apart, most of the books I read seem to have been grabbed at random.

First, some superlatives (categories vary slightly from last year)…

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Best book I read: I absolutely loved The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Funny, sharp, insightful, and never dull, written with an appealing blend of anger and dry humour. The Canadian government is doing a #GiftingReconciliation book list this holiday season, and so far they’ve made some great choices, including King’s book. It should be required reading for everyone in North America. My two runners-up are The Break by Katherena Vermette (a book I’d love to see on the #GiftingReconciliation list) and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (more below).

Worst book I read: Unlike last year, I didn’t have an immediate winner here. I very much did not care for The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, but it wasn’t pretending to be anything other than what it was—a somewhat fluffy escapist read.

Most fun reading experience: This is a three-way tie between two really fun books, Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, and one pretty ridiculous book that I loved despite myself (The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, but fair warning, it is ridiculous). The Blue Castle is a true delight. Let the back-cover copy convince you:

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original-imageMost disappointing reading experience: 
I read Bill Bryson’s newest book The Road to Little Dribbling when I was on vacation in the U.K., thinking that a book in which he wanders around the U.K. would be a perfect
thematic match for my trip. I love Bill Bryson so much that I read the book he wrote about the summer of 1927 in America even though I don’t especially care about 1927, aviation, U.S. presidents, or old-timey baseball players, and I loved it—I trust him to take any boring old subject and write about it well and with great humour. So I was very disappointed when I finished The Road to Little Dribbling, which has all the heart and gentle wit of a diary kept by a cranky octogenarian muttering about “kids these days,” which is to say, hardly any.

Best endings: Unquestionably Elena Ferrante. I’ve only read two of the Neapolitan novels so far—My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—and I have to admit I got a bit bogged down during the middle of the second one, but Ferrante knows how to build up steam before plunging her reader right into a devastating, dark, and perfectly unexpected ending. Those endings are seriously just killer. They’re not really cliffhangers, but both of the ones I’ve read (no spoilers, don’t worry) bring back a character, object, and/or motif that was important earlier in the book in such a surprising and perfect way that you think, “I can’t wait to read what happens next.”

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Best new-to-me author: I read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time this year (Slaughterhouse-Five) and was appropriately blown away, but my pick in this category is his polar opposite. My friend Jill (hi, Jill!) recommended Georgette Heyer to me ages ago, and this year I finally dove in. If you like Jane Austen, Heyer is the closest you can come to recreating that magic, and unlike Austen she was very prolific, so you’ll be occupied for a while. Her plots are formulaic, not as rich or surprising as Austen’s (but whose could be), and the characters are often quite silly—let’s say “lightly drawn”—but her books are thoroughly entertaining if you like the Regency period.

Best sequel: A Court of Mist and Fury, Sarah J. Maas’s follow-up to A Court of Thorns and Roses, veered sharply away from the track she laid during the first book, to great effect. Many long YA series can be frustrating because new situations and characters are thrown in only to create obstacles between the main character and the “real” love interest or to unnecessarily prolong the series. Maas herself is guilty of this in her Throne of Glass books, but in A Court of Mist and Fury, she reworks a lot of what was presented as unquestionably good in book one, and not in a way that just feels like she’s treading water waiting to get back to the original plot or love interest.

Best title: The title of Anne Tyler’s retelling of  27070127
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is great: Vinegar Girl. The book itself, less so. I wanted Tyler to dig a lot more
meat out of Shakespeare’s story, which she places in modern-ish Baltimore and retells with a light, mostly too light, touch.

Best revisionist history: My Lady Jane, co-written by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, is an absurd but fun retelling of the story of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days between Edward VI and Mary I, aka the two weaker prequels to Elizabeth I. In this version of Tudor England, the Protestant Reformation becomes a conflict between people who can turn into animals at will (Protestants like Edward VI) and those who can’t (Catholics like Mary I). I said it was absurd!

The Thomas Hardy Award for the book that took so long to read I forgot most of the plot: Moby-Dick. Obviously. I haven’t finished it yet, so I assume this award will have the same recipient in 2017, and possibly 2018… But my coworker gave me an adorable pop-up version of the book, so if I read that, it basically counts, right?

rush-ohBook I read because it seemed enough like Moby-Dick to count as working on reading Moby-DickShirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is a charming coming-of-age story set in a small whaling town in New Zealand around the turn of the 20th century. Teenager Mary Davidson has to care for her many younger brothers and sisters while supporting her father and his whaling crew after her mother’s death. It’s a much funnier, gentler story than that summary suggests, and it reminded me very much of my beloved I Capture the Castle, which brings me to my next category…

Book I read because it seemed like a straight rip-off of I Capture the Castle and I am
here for that: 
This is a very specific-to-me category, but I’ll read any book set in a dusty old English castle that is about a girl who needs to marry rich. Thankfully for me, Patrice Kindl delivered with Keeping the Castle. It isn’t really a straight rip-off of ICtC, as it wasn’t written in the 1940s and therefore has a more tongue-in-cheek modern attitude about all the ridiculousness of decaying English aristocrats and life in a castle. It’s also set in the Regency period and its protagonist is much less dreamy and romantic than our 31122beloved Cassandra, but Keeping the Castle definitely scratches that “castle” itch. Keep the escapist castle books coming 13249217in 2017, world—we’re going to need them. Also, this seems like a good place to note that I wrote about ICtC for The Billfold this month, thus fulfilling my desire to proselytize about that novel to the world (or the portion of the world that reads The Billfold).

Best literary experience: Okay, so 2016 wasn’t all bad for me, because I took an amazing trip to the U.K. (pre-Brexit) and *drumroll* saw a BBC drama about the Brontës being filmed in their hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Which, by the way, is both the most picturesque place I think I’ve ever been and where I had the most delicious afternoon tea. I also saw the couch Emily died on and Charlotte’s appallingly tiny “mourning shoes,” which she decorated with the hair of her dead siblings. The Brontës were far more metal than you or I will ever be.

Bonnets!
Bonnets!

It was a pretty literary trip, in fact: we saw a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre; I went to the British Library not once but twice to look at two different exhibits; I also wandered through Lambeth carrying Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth with me (doing a bit of research for some freelance work, more on that in 2017); I visited the Charles Dickens Museum and was extremely excited to learn that I have the same butter churn as ol’ Chuck; then, the Brontë pilgrimage; and finally, we popped in to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh to say hi to Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robbie Burns. Definitely the highlight of the year.

I was very excited.
I was very excited. Also, The Black Bull was where Branwell went to get drunk. History! It’s everywhere, even in pubs.

And now, some numbers. In 2016, I read:

  • 80 books (as of December 8, with several more that I didn’t add to the official total—a complete list minus those extras can be found here);
  • 65 books by women and 15 books by men (crush the patriarchy etc.)*;
  • 66 novels, 11 nonfiction books, two mysteries, and one book of short stories;
  • 24 books I’d classify as young adult (though the lines between young adult, “new adult,” and regular old adult fiction are becoming ever more blurred);
  • six books inspired by Jane Austen in some way (four by Georgette Heyer, who was absolutely a Jane Austen fangirl, in addition to Dear Emma by Katie Heaney and the diary Emma Thompson kept while she was filming Sense and Sensibility);
  • five books by one author, Sarah J. Maas (the most books by any single author that I read this year);
  • four books about dating and/or being single, including Live Alone and Like It, about which I’ve gone on at length, but also All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, Labour of Love by Moira Weigel, and Date-onomics by Jon Birger;
  • two books about food in some way (Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal);
  • only one book set during WWII, Slaughterhouse-Five (this feels like it can’t possibly be right since all books eventually get back to WWII somehow…);
  • and once again, nothing by Jonathan Franzen! Good riddance, 2016!
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My cat’s favourite read this year was Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

*A note: This includes one book co-written by three women. In last year’s post I included only the author’s sex (which is just a best guess based on a quick Google search or prior knowledge; obviously we can’t always know an author’s true gender identity preference). It’s important to me to read diverse books (after this year more than ever), and I still do a pretty terrible job of it, so I need to make more of an effort. But giving a breakdown here of “white writers” vs. “writers of colour” also doesn’t feel like a great solution for a whole host of reasons—sometimes you know a writer’s background or race and sometimes you don’t, and I don’t want to assume anything about anyone or lump all writers of colour into one category. I do know that I need to get better at this, though, so I might start noting this more in 2017. 

My year in books

Here are some random thoughts about a few things I read this year.

acresBest book I read: I’m going to give this one to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, which is a modern(ish) retelling of King Lear set on a farm in Iowa. It works way better than that sentence suggests. Smiley masterfully creates layer upon layer of small tragedies, giving the novel a truly Shakespearean sense of inevitability and fatalism. And hey, it won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1992.

Worst book I read: Hands down, this dishonour belongs to You Disappear by Christian Jungersen. At book club, I read aloud a list of things I hated about it. How much jam can one Danish family eat?!

montmarayMost fun reading experience: I loved reading Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals books, a young adult series that begins in the 1930s and is set on a fictional island kingdom off the coast of Spain. The books follow the ragtag group of teenagers who live alone on the island, having inherited the kingdom from their various dead parents. When World War II breaks out, their lives change forever. The later books in the series go surprisingly dark and feature a fairly chilling portrayal of life in London during the war. For people looking to fill the I Capture the Castle void.

SITTENFELD_Eligible[3]Most disappointing reading experience: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, book 4 in The Austen Project, a series of modern-day retellings of Jane Austen novels by different authors. Sittenfeld is an excellent writer, Pride and Prejudice is a great book, but Eligible fails to take off. It doesn’t come out until April 2016, so you have some time to gird your loins. All of the books in this series so far have been very disappointing. No one is taking any risks with the plots or characters so it is, literally, like reading watered-down Jane Austen, with iPhones and university degrees and much less sly, sparkling wit.

Book that still comes up in conversation: The Circle by Dave Eggers. It’s scarily relevant to These Modern Times. (Also my pick for worst sex scenes.)

Books from my list that I read but am not going to blog aboutAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (really liked this one; will be seeking out her other books); Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (see below); The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (the narration in this is as brilliant as everyone says); Philomena by Martin Sixsmith (boring; the movie was better).

judeobscureBook that took me the longest to read: Thomas Hardy’s 800-something-page ode to the tragedy of what happens when two fools can’t make up their minds to get married, Jude the Obscure. I began this in Cuba in March, took it to a Lake Huron beach in August, and was still reading it in November during my commute to work. I’m done now, but sometimes I feel like I’m still reading it. It’s really a book only fans of Thomas Hardy could love. And even then…

Book that reminded me strongly of a superior book I read a few years ago: Peter Nichols’s The Rocks has a cover so similar to the wonderful Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter that I can only salute the marketing and art departments who came up with it, because that cover is why I read this book. Beautiful Ruins was a critically acclaimed bestseller and The Rocks was clearly designed to fill the niche of “book set in the Mediterranean featuring doomed romances and secrets that are gradually revealed.” Beautiful Ruins is great; The Rocks is not as great, although the way the plot unfolded in reverse worked well.

See what I mean?
See what I mean?

Book that was clearly designed to appeal directly to me: First and Then by Emma Mills was marketed as Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights. Shut up and take my money.

Most random book I read this year: I found a copy of Jane Heller’s Name Dropping at my grandparents’ house (I was probably trying to avoid Jude the Obscure) and read it in a few hours. Not the kind of thing I’d normally pick up, but it was pretty entertaining!

Book I put on hold at the library early in 2015 that I am STILL waiting for as of December: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better by Monica Heisey. It’s finally on its way to me…

Best movie based on a book: Far From the Madding Crowd, based on the book of the same name by that old joker Thomas Hardy. Runner-up: Room, which was extremely faithful to Emma Donoghue’s novel and just as devastating.

Movie based on a book that has kicked off a new reading obsession: I saw In the Heart of the Sea, which was mediocre at best but is based on an by-all-accounts excellent non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick. I am now obsessed with 19th-century whaling. I’m planning to read Moby Dick in 2016 and have also bookmarked some other books on the topic. I wonder if Moby Dick will take less time than Jude the Obscure.

hemsworth
Chris Hemsworth looks like this in In the Heart of the Sea so maybe it’s still worth seeing? Image source.

You can see a complete list of what I read in 2015 on Goodreads.  And now, some numbers. In 2015, I read:

  • 77 books in total (as I write this mid-December, I’m hoping to squeeze in a few more before 2016);
  • 64 books by women, 12 books by men, and 1 book by multiple authors both male and female;
  • 52 novels, 18 non-fiction books of various genres, 5 mysteries, and 2 books of short stories;
  • 20 books that I classify as “young adult”;
  • 8 books primarily about diseases, medicine, and/or health, including a book about vaccines and immunity and one about cholera, a novel about a man with a traumatic brain injury (You Disappear by Christian Jungersen, do not read it), 2 young adult novels about tuberculosis (Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks and Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider), and 2 books in which a mysterious illness breaks out at an all-girls’ school (Conversion by Katherine Howe and The Fever by Megan Abbott);
  • 5 books set at least partially during WWII;
  • 5 books by Agatha Christie;
  • 4 young adult novels about impoverished families who live in crumbling castles (3 of these were in the same series and 1 was a re-read);
  • 2 trilogies (Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years and Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals);
  • 2 novels inspired by Jane Austen (Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld and Austenland by Shannon Hale);
  • 2 books about royal weddings (The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan and Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot);
  • 1 Victorian novel, Jude the Obscure;
  • … and, to the tune of “and a partridge in a pear tree,” nothing by Jonathan Franzen!

Happy New Year!

Two books about diseases and public health

I’ve mentioned a few times that my research focus during my MA was disease (specifically rabies) and the Victorian novel. I’m still very interested in diseases in general, especially how we construct narratives of disease and how these narratives—often deeply ingrained—influence our ideas about public health. Old (research) habits die hard: whenever I see a new cultural history of disease come out, I buy it. And that’s how I came to have Eula Biss’s On Immunity and Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map sitting unread on my shelf. I packed both for a vacation last month. I know, I am great at picking beach reads.

onimmunityAs its title suggests, On Immunity is an examination of the idea of immunity. Biss was inspired to write the book after she had a baby and faced the question of whether or not to vaccinate him. Biss did vaccinate her son, as she had always thought she would, but she was surprised by the amount of fear she felt herself, and encountered in others, when she talked to other mothers about this choice. She started thinking about vaccination, and the idea of immunity, and how vaccines developed in the first place, and this strange cultural moment we live in where people are opting out of vaccines that have saved literally millions of lives in the past hundred years. (I’m wildly pro-vaccine, in case that wasn’t clear before.)

In On Immunity, Biss interrogates the metaphors and myths we use to describe immunity. Vaccination is an expression of fear, whether it is fear of something concrete and relatively preventable such as death by measles, or something far more intangible, such as the fear of death itself. But the anti-vaccination movement is also based on fear: fear of the government, fear of Big Pharma, fear of injecting the unknown into your body. If skin is a barrier between our bodies (our selves?) and the outside world, then vaccination penetrates that barrier—all in the name of granting you immunity.  It does seem contradictory, doesn’t it? After all, vaccines contain the very viruses they are supposed to be protecting us from. The earliest form of inoculation against smallpox involved rubbing scabs or fluid from a smallpox patient into one’s own skin.

Biss understands this fear of vaccines on an individual level, but she also points out that in the case of infectious disease, our bodies may not be solely our own. Herd immunity, which means the general immunity to a particular disease in a population of people, depends upon people getting vaccinated. As the recent resurgence of diseases like measles shows, it only takes a few nutty people to threaten herd immunity for everyone. And there are people who can’t be vaccinated for health reasons (ex. allergies) or who have compromised immune systems (ex. cancer patients). What is our responsibility to public health? Are we required to be vaccinated so that others won’t get sick? Health is assessed on an individual level at our yearly physicals, but our own physical health depends in many ways upon the health of our community, especially when it comes to infectious diseases.

Victorian London learned this the hard way during the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. Cholera was the scourge of the 19th century, popping up every so often and routinely killing thousands of people per outbreak. (Cholera is still a problem today.) No one knew how it was spread until the Broad Street outbreak, but there were plenty of theories, chief among them the miasma theory. Simply put, back then, London stank. Lots of people crammed into tiny dwellings leads to lots of waste, and Victorian Londoners weren’t so great at managing their sewer system (or, um, having one). The air in London smelled pretty bad. Many respected officials and doctors believed that diseases, including cholera, were spread by this “bad air,” aka the miasma theory.

A cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.
An 1858 cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.

Along came John Snow, a doctor who was already notorious for pioneering the use of anaesthesia. When an outbreak of cholera occurred in his neighbourhood in Soho, he mapped the instances of disease and traced them all back to one water pump, where he found that the water supply had been contaminated by one household suffering from cholera. Feces from that household made its way into the water supply, and the disease spread through the water supply into the surrounding houses with devastating effects. Snow was one of the first epidemiologists, although he never got the credit he deserved and died without having his theory accepted by the medical establishment of the day.

ghostmapThe Ghost Map tells the story of this outbreak and Snow’s investigations. It is well-researched and fascinating, like a thriller where the villain is invisible and also causes a lot of diarrhea and suffering. I wish, though, that Johnson had spent more time investigating the cultural context of cholera and how Victorians thought about disease. The idea of the social body is an important one to add to this discussion, especially because it still has relevance today (see Biss’s questions about whether we owe it to our neighbours to get vaccinated). And how did Victorians approach infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever?  How did they write about disease in their newspapers, depict it in cartoons, confront it in their fiction? They had limited medical knowledge of pathogens and germs, but they were beginning to break through in other important areas (microscopes, the idea of inoculation). It seems to me that this conflict gave rise to many inaccurate but interesting depictions of diseases that suggest a society obsessed with health, illness, and infection. The Ghost Map could have benefited from some discussion of these questions.

In some ways, we’re still Victorians. Just like them, we’re obsessed with health. Also like them, and other humans throughout history, we still infuse our disease-related language with metaphor. As Biss points out, the way we talk about many diseases is steeped in the language of battle: so-and-so “lost her battle with cancer,” white blood cells are “armies” that keep our bodies safe from infection. In our struggle to understand our bodies, we rely on metaphor to give shape to our invisible inner workings. As Susan Sontag argues in Illness as Metaphor (a must-read for anyone interested in these issues), our dependence on metaphor leads to moral judgments about certain diseases. Sontag looks at consumption (tuberculosis) in the 19th century and cancer in the 20th and concludes that our disease metaphors lead to a kind of blame the victim mentality. For the Victorians, all kinds of diseases could blamed on emotional repression or moral failings. Countless novels feature women who are forced to bury their feelings and are soon wasting away from some nameless ailment. Men in the same novels who are “weak” and prone to drink inevitably end up dying of their own unnamed illness. And not a lot has changed in how we talk about illness. In 1978, when Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, one alternative cancer treatment involved psychotherapy to help find out what part of your personality brought cancer upon you.

Likewise, our current obsession with trends like “clean eating” often leads us to assume that people who don’t eat chickens that were raised to believe in themselves and organic blueberries watered with angel tears are doomed. There is, of course, a lot of privilege involved in these assumptions we make about health and wellness. The point is, a disease is never just a disease.  It’s a battle we must fight. It’s a statement about our incomes, the food we eat, the amount of exercise we get, the kind of sex we have or the number of partners, the amount of alcohol we drink. It’s a sign of our most private defects, writ upon our bodies for the whole world to see.

And why do we think about disease this way? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because we have a hard time accepting that our bodies are, ultimately, out of our control. We can eat all the happy chicken we want and avoid pesticides and wear a mask on the subway, but we’ll still get sick, especially if we live in large urban centres (and increasingly, many of us do). There are precious few things we can control about our bodies. All the more reason to get vaccinated.

A Whole Shelf of Dating Books, or the Beginning of My Charlotte Lucas Year

I turned twenty-seven last week. I’m also single. Fans of Jane Austen will know that this puts me firmly in Charlotte Lucas territory. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is the best friend of Elizabeth Bennet, our protagonist. Charlotte is described as around twenty-seven, plain, but sensible and practical. Charlotte is really more notable for what she isn’t; as Joshua Rothman writes, she’s not young, not pretty, and not rich. Not married. And at the age of twenty-seven, she’s a spinster.

The cover of Bolick's Spinster is a masterpiece of modern marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.
The cover of Bolick’s Spinster is a masterpiece of marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.

P&P was published in 1813,  but people are still interested in that word, it seems. Many women are “reclaiming” it, turning it from something derisive into something else, but we’re not sure what, exactly, that something else is. In Spinster, published earlier this year, Kate Bolick wrote about her desire to build a life on her own terms, taking inspiration from five female American writers who had complicated relationships with men and marriage. Spinster is a thought-provoking, though frustratingly self-absorbed, look at the choice to remain single. Bolick’s conclusion seems to be that any woman can be a spinster if she decides to spend time thinking carefully about what she wants from her life, if she tries to find a way to build that life by following a less traditional path, if she simply decides that she’d rather not get married. And instead of being an object of scorn, Bolick’s spinster is admirable, even aspirational, in her radical desire to make choices that are unencumbered by men.*

(* A few notes here: Spinster discusses heterosexual relationships, mainly, from what I can remember. Naturally, same-sex relationships complicate the issue. And the idea that anyone makes choices in a vacuum, uninfluenced by past boyfriends or fathers or even just male friends, is definitely suspect. But this is how Bolick characterizes her spinsters.)

Edwin Long's The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.
Edwin Long’s The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.

Spinsters are pretty in right now. Lots of women (and men, too) are posting images of themselves with their cats to Instagram and silly Tweets about nightgowns and eating chocolate in bed (just a few examples from my own life…), using hashtags like #spinsterlife. The Toast, probably the Internet’s most popular blog for spinsters (which I say with admiration), has done a number of hilarious pieces about modern spinsters. Has spinsterhood become some kind of hipster lifestyle movement? Is it now about having cats and enjoying knitting and going on vacation alone? If so, I’m on board. We don’t need “spinster” as a legal categorization anymore (“single” or “unmarried” will do just fine, thanks), so let’s make it into a different thing, a fun, tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. Let’s all solve a murder and then go out for gin-based cocktails and head back to our perfectly decorated apartments-for-one like real badass spinsters.

In real life (and some fiction), spinsters were objects of derision or pity. They began as independent women who spun fabric. And then, probably because unmarried women are threatening to a society that depends upon heterosexual marriage for reproduction, something changed and they became lonely figures. They weren’t cool aspirational figures who could do whatever they wanted; they were often women without family or money who couldn’t work because Sexism and so had to make ends meet with limited resources. As Briallen Hopper points out, for a book called Spinster, Bolick’s memoir/cultural history doesn’t have much to say about those kinds of spinsters. (In fact, it’s really not much of a cultural history at all, preoccupied as it is with white, relatively privileged New York writers. I’d love to read a book about the evolving figure of the spinster, from spinning fabric to today, if there are any out there.) Most of the five women Bolick profiles were married at least once. Bolick writes about the relationships she herself had in between bouts of living alone, travelling, and prioritizing her work. Bolick isn’t living a life apart from men; she’s constructing her life and fitting men in here and there when she wants to.

An 1881 cartoon from the British humour mag Punch. Source.

The “real” spinster is missing, or at least the spinster as we’re most familiar with her: the dour maiden aunt or neighbour with her pursed lips and reduced circumstances, hiding a secret life behind closed doors, the object of many speculations about why she never married—the Emily Dickinsons and Emily Griersons of this world (is Emily a spinster name or what?), the Miss Havishams, the Miss Bateses, all of the many unmarried women in Henry James and Edith Wharton and Charlotte Bronte, even Miss Marple. Austen herself, and most of the Brontes, and lots of other female writers. These are women who are uninteresting to men for reasons of looks, money, or personality (too outspoken, too awkward, not agreeable enough) or threatening to men because of their intelligence and desire for something other than marriage in a time when marriage was the only acceptable end to their stories. The Charlotte Lucases of fiction.

Charlotte, of course, becomes not-a-spinster pretty quickly; she marries Elizabeth’s cousin Mr. Collins, who had previously proposed to Elizabeth and been rejected. Mr. Collins is odious—all you need to do is search for images of “Mr. Collins Pride and Prejudice BBC” and you’ll see exactly why Elizabeth, or anyone, would have refused him. He’s a pompous, self-important social climber. He simpers in front of his social superiors and self-righteously informs his cousins of what books they should be reading. He’s horrible. So why does Charlotte marry him? Because he has a wealthy patron and a good income and he’s going to inherit the Bennet house some day. Charlotte’s twenty-seven and this might be the first and last marriage proposal she receives. As Mrs. Collins, she’ll have a house of her own, probably children, and security for the rest of her life. As Miss Lucas, unmarried eldest daughter of a small-town knight, she’ll be a burden to her parents.

Mr. Collins is stomach-turning. Source.
Mr. Collins isn’t exactly tall, dark, and handsome. Source.

Rothman argues that we should try harder to understand Charlotte’s choice to marry Mr. Collins, a choice that is generally read as depressing or sad, even in the context of Charlotte’s world, Regency-era England. Especially as modern readers, we’re sad that Charlotte feels that her only option in life is to marry a man she doesn’t love. She’s the 1813 version of that Princeton mom. As Rothman points out, though, this is a choice that Charlotte makes herself, in a world that tries its hardest to deny her a choice at every turn. She’s fully aware of Mr. Collins’s defects, and her own. She isn’t pretty enough or rich enough to attract a different kind of husband, and that’s her reality. So she makes the choice to marry him, to be a wife and not a spinster, to create a life of her own (she rearranges the rooms in his house to her liking and encourages him to spend his time in the garden). Not the kind of life that Bolick decides to create, but a life that she can live with nonetheless.

I started with Spinster, but I’ve found myself reading a lot of books about these topics: dating and relationships, being single, modern love. Maybe that’s the cultural moment we’re in now. People are delaying marriage, and online dating is taking off, so people are writing about these things. There’s Spinster and a number of smart reaction pieces to it. Aziz Ansari’s book on the sociology of modern dating, Modern Romance, came out this year, following a 2014 book called It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel (there’s that number again). All of these articles and books have made me think a little harder about how we date, and why.

modern romanceAnsari writes well about the problem of dating in the modern age. Modern Romance is immensely entertaining, and reassuring, too, if you’ve ever tried online dating and thought, “Well, this is terrible.” You’re not alone, because Ansari has tried it, too, and he has a lot of funny anecdotes to share. He retells dating horror stories people told him in focus groups. He visits retirement homes to figure out how people met fifty years ago. He travels to Tokyo and Buenos Aires to see how people date in other countries. Unlike Bolick, who writes to defend the spinster life, Ansari assumes that if you’re reading his book, you’re interested in dating and settling into a serious relationship (and Modern Romance is about men and women). So he has a few practical tips about giving it more than one date, and actually meeting up in person instead of living through your screens, and so on. But he also makes a number of accurate observations about the state of modern romance. Dating is hard. We’re all on our phones all the time, and another potential date is just a swipe away. We can’t focus on the person sitting across the table from us.

9780399162879_p0_v2_s260x420-thumb-350x477-122899Eckel, too, writes about how hard dating can be. In her late thirties, Eckel was single, not by choice, and found herself frustrated by all of the well-meaning advice she received from friends. So she wrote an essay and then a book to explain why it was all wrong. You’re too picky, you’re too confident: it may be well-meaning, but it’s all contradictory. It isn’t “too picky” to reject people who want different things than you do, it’s smart. How can being “too confident” scare suitors away when people are also telling singles they should be more confident to attract others? Eckel’s argument is that most single people (those who don’t want to be single) simply haven’t met the right person yet. It’s Not You is about how it’s fine to want to be in a relationship, and Spinster is all about how it’s fine to not be in one, but they have much in common. You have to create your own life, whether you’re in a relationship or not. And you should think about the choices you make: the bad relationships you leave; the people you choose not to date or the ones you waste time with, knowing that you don’t even like them; the marriage proposal you may have turned down; the person who treated you badly and you couldn’t see it. Why did you make those choices, and what do they say about what you really want?

I’ve been jokingly referring to this as my Charlotte Lucas Year. Celebrating my birthday with a friend, I drank a cocktail called an Old Maid, a delicious sort of alcoholic lemonade, and I thought about all the things I have at twenty-seven that many spinsters before me could not. It’s 2015, and so I can date whomever I choose. More importantly, I have a job that I find fulfilling and a small amount of disposable income to spend on spinster-y things like my cat and adult colouring books and a library card catalogue. And then, I can post photos of all of those things to Instagram with a sarcastic hashtag. In my own way, I’m participating in the spinster reclaiming, celebrating elements of “spinster culture” and self-deprecatingly talking about being an old maid at twenty-seven, knowing full well that I’m not. I don’t know what Charlotte Lucas Year actually means just yet—maybe it’s just funny, or maybe it means I’m going to spend this year trying to figure out my life and what I want from it (spoiler alert: not to marry Mr. Collins). I think, though, that single or coupled, as we get older, all of us are setting off into uncharted territory. Our lives don’t look much like the lives of our parents; we’re delaying marriage and babies, not buying houses, driving Zipcars and taking transit and living in cities instead of moving to suburbs. Like Charlotte, we all have to figure out what choice is right for us, regardless of what judgmental readers have to say about it 200 years later.

Quick Project Update

Not only have I not finished any other books on my list, I’ve actually purchased more (yes, I have a problem) and therefore have more to add. I’ve been reading, but I’ve been reading library books.

I’m still in the middle of A Tale of Two Cities, and as much as I have been a cheerleader for Dickens in the past, I am finding it quite boring. Just being honest! And no one is more willing than me to suffer through Dickens’s paragraphs about poor orphans and saintly girls with golden locks in order to get to his flashes of brilliance: spontaneous combustion, houses that fall down around their occupants, Wemmick’s castle. The opening sentence of Two Cities, reproduced for your reading pleasure below, is, of course, wonderful, but the rest is slow going.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

But what a sentence! Right? Doesn’t that describe every era since the dawn of time? Isn’t that what we all think about our own times—that everything is terrible and confusing but also wonderful and new? There is no other writer quite like Dickens. And so I’ll keep going with A Tale of Two Cities (and, eventually, the other two Dickens books on my shelf… oh dear).

One thing I’ve been thinking about is how people encountered this novel originally. It was published in 1859 in weekly installments in the periodical All the Year Round, run by (of course) Dickens himself, who was a true control freak. In a sense, the fact that I keep putting it down and picking it up again a week or two later is really how it was intended to be read. (OK, I’m reaching a bit here, but it’s kind of true.) In some of Dickens’s other novels that were published serially, you can really see the mechanics at work—chapters end with cliffhangers, but in the next chapter, the narrative begins in a different place or with different characters, to keep you reading for the outcome of that earlier cliffhanger. Sort of like what George R.R. Martin does in Game of Thrones and its sequels, really. Or like watching a weekly drama series on TV, a comparison that other, smarter people have already made. People today who gather around the office water cooler to talk about last night’s shocking episode of Mad Men or Homeland could just as easily be Victorians chatting to their neighbours about that week’s surprising installment of Little Dorrit. 

Dickens was a very market-savvy writer and knew exactly how to sell his own work, something that a lot of writers still aren’t very good at. (Fun fact: apparently A Tale of Two Cities is the bestselling novel of all time. I’m not sure if this is true—what about Harry Potter?—but it certainly could be true.) However, I’m having trouble tracing the marks of serialization in A Tale of Two Cities. So although I’m (sort of) encountering the novel the way that Victorian readers first did, I’m missing the sense of urgency and the typical structure, with lots of plot climaxes, that you’d find in a novel that was originally serialized. I wonder if it’s just my own disinterest in the subject matter and characters so far,* or whether Dickens had grown tired of relying on that same old serialization technique at this point in his career. I’m going to start paying closer attention to chapter openers and closers, to see if I can work this out.

* The novel is set in Paris and London during the build-up to the French Revolution. It’s one of two works of historical fiction by Dickens, all of his other novels being set in the period in which they were written or thereabouts. Two Cities also features fewer characters and plotlines than a typical Dickens novel. I love the sprawling narratives and dozens of characters you’ll find in something like Bleak House, so I’m finding it more difficult to get into a book focusing pretty closely on two families and their closest associates. Dickens is also often criticized for being something of a caricaturist, rather than developing characters who feel like real people. There’s some truth to this, but especially so in Two Cities so far, I think. Lucie is very innocent and very beautiful, and her father is very wronged and very damaged, and the Defarges are very inscrutable and very sinister. Everyone is very something-or-other. So far, Sydney Carton is my favourite—mainly because he’s sarcastic but has hidden depths. He feels the most like a real person to me.

Anyway, I’m still reading from my list! Just very slowly.