At the beginning of every new year, I think about what I want to read in the next twelve months. I usually decide that I want to read “better” books. (Yes, I set reading goals, I’m a dork.) And then I spend weeks devouring some YA fantasy series. This year is no different so far! I’ve read only one thing from my list but lots of random stuff.
I’ve actually started Moby-Dick, which I said I was going to read this year. It’s hilarious! I’m not kidding! How come no one ever talks about how funny this book is? I honestly thought I was in for months of reading turgid prose about a man who thinly disguises his overcompensation as an obsession with a whale. Nope! (You may be wondering why I wanted to read it in that case. I have no good answer.) Ishmael is a gloriously snarky narrator, and so far I’m loving Melville’s random digressions full of arcane knowledge. I hope some of it comes in handy at trivia night. I escaped reading this in high school/university/grad school, and I think it would be a much better sell to the poor students who aren’t so lucky if they knew that Ishmael is a total gossip. Much like Jude the Obscure, this is the book that I’ll be picking up and putting down for, oh, probably the rest of the year/my life.
The YA fantasy series with which I’m obsessed this year is Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series. Book one is about an assassin, released from a mine where she was sentenced to hard labour, who must face a competition to become the King’s Champion to win her freedom. Oh, and there are elves and witches and magic spells and stuff. Between the charming crown prince and the gruff captain of the guard, and other love interests who pop up in later books, this series certainly fulfills the apparently mandatory “love triangle” component of current YA lit. It’s kind of silly and not very well-written, though Maas’s other book, A Court of Thorns and Roses, wasn’t bad, but I. am. obsessed. Each book is so long, and yet I’ve devoured them in an embarrassingly short time. So, if you’re into silly teen fantasy-lite, check them out.
I’ve read three other fluffy-ish books this year: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, which I hated so I won’t talk about it; Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, for my YA book club; and Vintage by Susan Gloss, which I liked a lot! “Books set in vintage dress shops” is a small genre, and due to my love of dresses I’m always happy to find another book to add to the list. Vintage was sweet and tackled some unexpectedly heavy topics (domestic abuse, motherhood, mental illness, teen pregnancy) in a way that didn’t feel awkward or preachy like it normally does in these kinds of books. An enjoyable read if not a super serious literary one.
And speaking of super serious literary reads, I read Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a book that everyone was praising to the skies in 2015. I have mixed thoughts. I absolutely loved the structure of the book and thought it was brilliant. The novel is about a young couple, Otto and Mathilde, and their relationship unfolds over about 20 years. The first half is told only from Otto’s perspective (Fates) and the second half only from Mathilde’s (Furies). The differences in their accounts of the same 20 years are shocking and unexpectedly dark, especially Mathilde’s violent backstory. It almost feels like two different books, which somehow works. I think this was what Gillian Flynn was aiming for in Gone Girl, only here the vastly different perspectives of husband and wife are truly surprising and not telegraphed from a mile away. Throughout the first half, I found myself growing increasingly skeptical at Otto’s depiction of Mathilde as the fierce, organized, endlessly caring and stable and nurturing wife, and that was all completely turned on its head in the section from her perspective. Loved it.
Structure aside, though, this book was waaaaaay too long. I often find myself making these complaints about contemporary fiction, but there is absolutely no need for a novel like this to be 400 pages. Otto’s section grew so tedious—there was so much manpain about his family and his career as a playwright—and even Mathilde’s section could have been trimmed considerably. If the book were a bit crisper, with a few sections cut and some internal monologue vastly reduced, it would have a tighter, thriller-esque quality that I think could work very well (much like Gone Girl but smarter and, impossibly, even darker). Maybe it’s me and reading 400 pages about a long-term marriage is not my jam, but how much whining and secret plotting and not having a normal discussion about anything do we need to read about to get the point.
I’ve read three other books this year, all of which I plan to write about later. One I borrowed from a friend and kept for over two years. Now it’s back in her possession. There’s one reading goal for 2016 knocked off the list!
My other vague reading plans for this year are: to finish Moby-Dick, of course; to read all of the random books I have about Jane Austen and/or inspired by her and/or starring her as a vampire so I can write a post about her; to read all of my Judy Bolton books so I can write something about teen sleuth fiction and Margaret Sutton’s subtle genre subversion; and to read no more novels about knitting. And if I finish Moby-Dick, maybe I’ll start War and Peace? Ahahaha.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Ansari 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.
Eckel, 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.
When I first heard that HarperCollins was releasing what people were calling a “sequel” of sorts to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical. Who wasn’t? On the one hand you have a reclusive, aging author who has avoided the public eye her entire life and doesn’t seem interested in publishing anything else. On the other hand, there’s a big publishing company with this unedited draft someone happened to find in the vault. Okay, sure. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most major publishing event of this century so far. This book is going to make HarperCollins a ton of money, which they know. It all sounded like a “quirky” Jason Reitman movie waiting to happen.
But clearly, as someone who works in publishing, is interested in writing, and likes TKaM, I was going to have to read Go Set a Watchman. I put it off. I read all the reviews claiming that it destroys the legacy (we’ll get to this in a minute) of TKaM and portrays Beloved Father Figure Atticus Finch ™ as a racist. I read the advance first chapter, published online by various media outlets, and felt my heart sink when I found out that Scout’s brother Jem, so prominent in TKaM, was dead in this version of the story.
Then, I read the whole thing myself. Reader, I finished it in an afternoon. There are plenty of problems with Go Set a Watchman, even setting aside the questionable choice to publish it at all (which you can read about in more detail here). But I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, much more than I had expected.
Here’s the thing: Go Set a Watchman isn’t a standalone novel. It’s a first draft of TKaM, and that’s the only reason why it’s such an interesting read. If I were evaluating this novel on its own, I would say that the dialogue is frankly terrible (all speeches, no real conversations), the plot, such as it is, is poorly paced, and the climax doesn’t work. It is very, very clear that this particular draft was never edited and was instead reworked. A short flashback scene was expanded into what would become TKaM. I don’t think that Watchman needed to be published to such fanfare or marketed as a “sequel” or “continuation” to TKaM, because I feel that is quite misleading, but it’s fascinating to read. In Watchman, readers can trace exactly what editing is and what it does.
How does editing change a book? The point is that the average reader will never know. Editing is supposed to be a behind-the-scenes, invisible hand kind of activity. And yet here we are with a record of how one of the twentieth century’s most famous books became itself. Even non-publishing-nerds can agree that that’s kind of cool. You can see traces of TKaM in Watchman, of course. Even in her late twenties, Scout (now mainly referred to as Jean Louise) is all sharp edges and angles. When she visits Maycomb as an adult, she doesn’t fit in any more than she fit in when she was a child who refused to wear dresses. And the flashback scenes where Jean Louise reflects on her childhood adventures with Jem and Dill are the best parts of Watchman—funny, so realistically childlike, and poignant, especially because Jem is dead in this version of the story.
The New York Times has more information on Harper Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff. You can see how she would read this draft and see that it would work better as a novel told from a child’s point of view. When it became TKaM, the book got tighter and less preachy. The dialogue became real dialogue instead of two characters performing soliloquies at each other. As a historical document, Watchman is interesting reading. As a novel, well, it needs some work (which is just what it got). But there are flashes of Lee’s brilliance throughout, especially in her use of details (clothing, quirks) to establish character, and her ability to evoke mood and atmosphere in few words.
So is Atticus Finch racist? Not more racist, and certainly a lot less, than any other average seventysomething white man living in rural Alabama in the 1950s. Watchman‘s portrayal of Atticus can only be surprising to you if you a) never got past the stage of childhood where you idolize your parents, or some other parental figure, or b) know nothing about the civil rights movement and what American society was like in the 1950s. Newsflash: all white people are at least a little bit racist, even today.
Jean Louise finds out that Atticus was once a member of the KKK (only to keep an eye on their activities, someone claims) and that he’s now joined a sort of concerned citizens’ group that wants to preserve segregation and keep Black citizens of Maycomb “in their place.” This is a fairly realistic portrayal of the insidiousness of racism. Even someone like Atticus, a lawyer who appears to believe strictly in the law and justice above all else, is blind to the way his cultural upbringing has shaped his beliefs. Prejudice creeps in. Jean Louise, who has escaped to the marginally more enlightened New York City, is horrified to learn all this about her father, a man she idolized. They have a cringe-worthy confrontation that feels a little bit like a scene in a drama major’s thesis project. Jean Louise accuses her father of being racist and inconsistent. He accepts her insults because he knows she has to strangle her idealized version of him in order to finally grow up. There’s something interesting there, but it’s all a little undercooked.
Even so, Jean Louise’s realization that her father is just a man is moving, and his characterization as a lawyer who still thinks that Black people are “in their infancy” as a people is cringe-worthy, but not inaccurate to the period in which the novel was written. As a novel about race (certainly the last thing I am qualified to opine about, but here we go), where Watchman really fails is in its refusal to allow Black characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. TKaM got away with this, at least in part, because it’s told from a white child’s point of view. Scout is necessarily blind to the deeper forces at work in Maycomb. In fact, that’s the point of TKaM—she learns about the evils of racism through the trial of Tom Robinson.
But as Lawrence Hill points out, except for Calpurnia (who has a very small role in Watchman), there are no “three-dimensional, fully rendered black character[s] in either book.” The brouhaha over whether or not Atticus is racist obscures the larger point: that we’re still idealizing a white saviour from a novel published in 1960. TKaM is a snapshot of race relations at a particular time in American history. It’s written from a white perspective. It’s not a guidebook. If its subject matter, about Black men being falsely accused of crimes and white society turning a blind eye, is still relevant today, that’s a sad commentary on our failure to change, not a sign of the book’s timelessness.
And Atticus isn’t a god. Whose fault is it that Atticus turned out to be a mere mortal? Not his, and certainly not Harper Lee’s.
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.