RHC 2019: Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads.

Alternate: A collection of poetry published since 2014.

Springdale, Arkansas (near where I live) is home to the largest population of Marshallese nationals outside of the Marshall Islands. That migration started in the 1970s and snowballed from there, in an emigration pattern quirk that lends a wonderful and unique blend of languages and cultures to the area.

Nevertheless, there’s uncomfortable complexity to that escalating migration in terms of what it means for Marshallese identity as more and more people leave the islands. This Guardian article gets into that.

Now, there is an absolutely disgusting history between the US and the Marshall Islands. I know there’s a lot of black marks in US history, but what the US did on Bikini Atoll should be something we handle the same way that Germany handles the Holocaust, by taking it extremely seriously and educating everyone here about exactly what happened and what we can do to prevent anything even remotely similar from happening ever again.

We… don’t do that.

RHC 2019: Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: An #ownvoices book set in Oceania.

Jo found that the pieces of land, dismembered from each other, the orphaned parts of the now-dissolved whole, were to be found on the maps all numbered the way the graves at the Mullum cemetery were numbered… The way that convicts – rapists and murderers – were numbered in prison.

We have family in Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve had the extremely excellent experience of visiting twice. Between people I care about living there and having taken a couple of extended trips, I always perk up when Oz comes up.

Most of what I know about Australia comes straight from my sister-in-law and her family, including the very little I know about Aboriginal rights. I’ve been at events and looked at programs that included a Welcome to Country statement, which seems to me to be much closer to the front of the white Australian consciousness than the equivalent circumstances in the United States and Canada. I mean, words are cheap, sure, but it seems like a start, at (the very) least.

RHC 2019: The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman.

Alternate: An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America.

I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.

I originally picked this out after listening to an interview with Valeria Luiselli on the First Draft podcast. I’d been thinking it would be my pick for the Mexico/Central America own voices challenge, but after reading it, it felt more in the spirit of the book to use it for the translation task instead.

I enjoyed this before I read the concluding remarks from the author, but MAN does that author’s note drive the point of the whole book home. On its surface, The Story of My Teeth is the story of Highway, an accomplished auctioneer offering a series of auctions of his own teeth at varying levels of postmodern absurdity.

RHC 2019: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book by an author of color set in or about space.

I am a boy and a girl and a witch wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body.

Hurray, it’s sci-fi time! I read a couple of science fiction books last year (The Stars Are Legion and The Three-Body Problem), both of which I greatly enjoyed and which went a long way toward reassuring me that all non-YA / non-children’s sci-fi isn’t Dune. I really hate Dune. This is a pretty entrenched position, and I’ll talk your ear off about it given the opportunity. Nevertheless, I’m excited about being excited about sci-fi again.

Anyway. An Unkindness of Ghosts is definitely not Dune. It takes place on a generational ship called the Matilda, which left the Great Lighthouse (Earth) about three hundred years ago. The Matilda has been on autopilot, drifting through the universe ostensibly in search of a new planet. Over the centuries, a religion related to the ship and its course has sprung up, and a cruel, painfully resonant caste system has been put in place.

RHC 2019: Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book by a journalist or about journalism. 

I’ve only been to Oklahoma City once, when I went with some friends to see The Flaming Lips play the Zoo Amphitheater. I didn’t know it was going to be one of the last “pile in the car and sleep at somebody’s parents’ house” style trips of my life. I was twenty-three, freshly heartbroken, and completely unaware that the lead singer of the Flaming Lips is kind of a sketchy jerk, and it was 2006.

Under those very specific circumstances, there were few highs as high as a Flaming Lips show. I saw them a couple of times in college, but this third show was in another league. Being in an outdoor venue and on the Lips’ home turf brought a whole new dimension to the dancing Santas, the confetti cannons, and Wayne Coyne rolling around on all of our intensely loving heads in his giant plastic hamster ball. Honestly, it’s probably the best show I’ve ever been to. I know that’s not a particularly cool thing to say here in 2019, but it’s true. 

Day Jobs

overshare

There was a big Twitter kerfuffle recently over someone who posted what I think was meant to be an encouragement to take risks and dream big regarding writing aspirations. It came out sounding more like, “just quit your job, you coward.” He got pretty thoroughly dragged as a result, to the point that someone wound up contacting his mother over it. Good grief, internet. I do think it was a pretty ridiculous and unconsidered thing to say, but I’m not interested in piling onto the guy further. So I’m leaving his name out of this post.

Still, the whole thing struck a nerve with me. Plenty of responses were from parents explaining how financial risks become more complicated when there are kids involved (this is true). Other pretty reasonable rebuttals involved wanting to be able to, you know, eat. Considering I’ve devoted at least 10-15 hours per week for the past year to writing – actual writing, submitting, editing, etc. – with less than $300 to show for it, the whole food thing is a decent reason to do something for cash besides writing. That comes out to less than a $2 per hour “wage,” if you’re curious.

Still, I do think it’s important to have a reason to go to work that isn’t purely survival-driven (for writers and for everyone else). Sure, wanting a stable income is a huge factor in my decision not to turn in my notice and ride off into the sunset in Pursuit of My Dreams. That’s not to say I haven’t thought about it. Believe me, I have. More than once. Especially on days like today, which involved a literal dumpster fire. But I keep showing up, and that’s not the worst thing in the world.

So here’s my other silver lining of a non-writing day job
for writers. It’s fuel. I’m lucky in that I can find a lot of intellectual, creative, and social interest in my work most days, and working with the public keeps my personal social bubble from getting too opaque. That’s good for both my writing and my humanity. Even if your job is terrible, though, it’s a set of experiences and probably at least a few human interactions that you can learn from. No matter how bad it gets, it’s basically a nonstop writing prompt generator /hands-on research opportunity, right? If you’ve got to have a job and it’s bumming you out, remember that no one else alive has your lived experience, which includes work, so use it (I think all of this is true for full time caregivers as well, incidentally).

I also like to remember Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wallace Stevens. The dude turned down a teaching post at Harvard because it meant he would have to leave his position as an insurance exec, a career he spent most of his life in. With no disrespect intended toward the insurance community, is there a less poetic industry in existence? But that didn’t stop Wallace from articulating the mortality-affirming concupiscence of dessert.

So work your job if you have to work it, and enjoy it when you can and use it even if you can’t. There are worse things in life than to be employed (and/or to spend your time caring for people you love), and there’s freedom and a whole lot less stress in not having to make a living writing fiction.

And don’t forget who the only emperor is and embroider your fantails while you can. Gonna force that click thru, folks.

Good Enough

overshare, writing

“Good enough,” is what I tell myself right before submitting a tricky paper, clicking send on a delicate email, filing my taxes, or sending a short story out to a publisher. It’s always a cheerfully deviant moment where I’ve given myself permission to just stop worrying about something and boldly send it out in the world. It’s a moment followed by a long shower, a stiff drink, a bowl of mac n cheese, or whatever my comfort activity of the era is.

Then about fifteen minutes later there’s usually a total panic in which I bemoan my actions and frantically try to think of a way to recall whatever word bullet I just fired. But by then it’s too late and after tearing through the whole Kübler-Ross framework, I repeat my comfort action of choice and eventually, finally go to bed.

I just can’t get there with my current project. It was supposed to be a short story. Then I found myself googling “novelette publishing markets.” Then I blew through that length and got really into the idea of writing a novella. The word count range 20-40K felt roomy enough to accommodate the story without being a stressor. And now here I am at 48K, which according to my “short novel okay?” “lowest word count publishable” and “query 50000 words” searches is unacceptable. I need to find at least another 12,000 words in this story.

I know they’re there. This narrative spans about twenty years, so it’s not like I can’t find some spots to dig deeper. Every time I get to the end (and, weirdly for something I’m having this much trouble finishing, it does have a complete plot!), I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to the story and I need just one more developmental round to coax it out onto the page.

That’s fine, it’s just driving me bonkers. I’ve spent about three quarters of a year truly believing that it’s one final spit-and-polish edit away from being cheerfully good enough. It’s starting to feel like I’m approaching some sort of event horizon where I’m infinitely one more edit away from finishing the thing.

And of course my protagonist’s Achilles heel and internal motivation is a persistent feeling that she’s just not good enough. So at least that’s easy to write?

At least I can blithely click Publish on this subpar post without too much handwringing.

RHC 2019: Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a humor book. 

In 1999 or maybe 2000, I was at a dear friend’s house (at the time, he was in the high school boyfriend iteration of said friendship – long story with many revisions). We were high school kids with driver’s licenses and big dreams in a small town in Arkansas eating pizza pockets in front of his parents’ TV on a weekend night, when we channel-surfed into Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill HBO special.

This wasn’t just any TV. Matt had satellite TV. He had so. many. channels, including MTfreakingV (my hometown’s standard cable package was a VHI-only deal, which is part of the reason I’m so well-versed in 1980s one hit wonders). Keep in mind that these were pre-YouTube and pre-Napster days. Discovering new music often involved shelling out for an actual $9.99 CD, which would then be lovingly installed in my six-disc changer and listened to obsessively while poring over the liner notes. 

Anyway, watching TV at Matt’s house was a big deal.  

And so we were surfing the mind-boggling number of premium channels in his satellite package when we came across a British comedian wearing thick eyeliner, bright blue eye shadow and heels, but who also appeared to be a man.

You need to understand that at the time my understanding of transgender identity was largely informed by Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura, and, mercifully less damagingly,  Wanda in The Sandman (because we were cool kids, mind you). So I was confused by this person so confidently and unapologetically coloring outside of the lines.

I hadn’t had much exposure to his style of comedy either. It bounced around wildly between cerebral, ridiculous, surreal, and big-hearted. 

I’d never seen anything so funny in my entire life. 

RHC 2019: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an epistolary novel.

I’m trying to fill in major gaps in my understanding of American literature, since I’ve read an appallingly low number of major works by black writers. I was excited to read The Color Purple, especially since I kept coming across references to it after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God a couple of years ago. I knew the title The Color Purple, I knew Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg were in the movie, and I knew the musical was a big deal. Other than that, I walked into this book completely blind. Just a heads up: there are going to be a lot of spoilers in this post, and if you have also managed to remain ignorant about The Color Purple, I highly recommend you go read it without knowing anything about it.

I expected it to wrestle with race and gender, but I had no idea it also dove straight into same-sex relationships and stark criticisms of American Christianity. There were a lot of “so THAT’S why it’s banned all the time!” moments while I was reading, with the parallel thought, of course – “so THIS is why everyone should read this book!”

Now, I was also aware of a thorny literary controversy about Alice Walker recommending a book generally perceived to be anti-Semitic in a New York Times interview in December 2018 (I’m not trying to be cagey with that “generally perceived” bit – I just don’t know much about it). Here’s a link to a Vox article about the whole thing, which also includes a disappointing rundown of the trend of anti-Semitic threads in Walker’s recent output.

I’m not sure how to comment on this, and I think I’m going to leave it here: The Color Purple is an astonishing book that’s at complete odds with bigotry. That may not mean that its creator is free of it, though.

Anybody who loves Ender’s Game  or Roald Dahl’s work knows the drill, I suppose. Still, it’s jarring.

RHC 2019: American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an alternate history novel.

This is my third round of the Book Riot Read Harder challenge, and I recommend it to everyone I know. Reading more widely and posting here about it has done a lot to improve my reading (comprehension, retention, and enjoyment), which of course is nothing but a positive for my writing as well.

I’ve been reading more, generally, outside of my challenge books, and it’s been wonderful to finally get a grasp on the book world again. This process has also involved setting some limits on my phone. I’m happier and I get more done when I’m not constantly and  mindlessly scrolling, and I’m a better reader for it. I haven’t gone to extremes like deleting all social media from my phone, but being just a teensy bit more aware of how often I’m staring at a little beeping buzzing LCD screen has helped me reclaim more reading time than you’d think a parent with a full time job could scrounge up.

But even apart from (sort of) untethering myself from my phone, I believe that doing these challenges has helped me become more curious and willing to jump into material I may not know anything about or have any sort of experience with. It’s brought a lot of the pleasure of words back into my life, and so yes, I’m going to keep doing this, and yes, I’m going to keep blogging for my mother about it.

Which brings me to my first Read Harder book this year, which is wall-to-wall feral hippos, pregnant Latina assassins, and nonbinary explosive experts. Weeeee!

2018: The First Year of the Rest of My Life (or Something)

writing

2018 was a big year for me. I went from having zero publication credits to three in a really short space of time – one for a first chapter contest I’d made the short list for in 2016, one hand-to-god pro sale, and one hand-to-god invitation to contribute. Spring 2018 felt like a lifechanging moment for me.

It was. I’m incredibly proud of those three stories of mine out there for total strangers’ eyeballs. Buuuuuuuuuuuut I made the mistake of thinking that I Had Arrived and had somehow cut to the front of the line, skipping all that rejection business.

Ha. Haha. Ha.

Read Harder 2018 Challenge – My Finished List

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This was my second year doing Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself again. Admittedly, I feel weird about gameifying my reading the same way I obsessively track my steps, my phone usage, and my sleep, but nevertheless I did push myself to read more widely this year and read quite a few books I’ve been loudly recommending that I might not have encountered otherwise. I think the benefits of that outweigh the uneasy sense that I’m on the path to sublimating myself into one semi-sentient to-do list of a consciousness.

This represents about half of my 2018 reading and about 18,000 words of writing. And I plan to do the 2019 challenge this year, so Mom, get ready to comment!

  1. A book published posthumously: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  2. A book of true crime: The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
  3. A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance): Kindred by Octavia Butler
  4. A comic written and drawn by the same person: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa): The Devourers by Indra Das
  6. A book about nature: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
  7. A western: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  8. A comic written or drawn by a person of color: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
  11. A children’s classic published before 1980: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
  12. A celebrity memoir: Leonard by William Shatner / Vacationland by John Hodgman
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  14. A book of social science: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
  15. A one-sitting book: Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image: Nick Cave: Mercy on Me by Reinhard Kleist
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  20. A book with a cover you hate: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse – and I feel guilty about this!
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan
  22. An essay anthology: The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished): Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

RHC 2018: Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an assigned book you hated (or never finished).

I usually get my assigned reading done, and it’s rare for me to really hate a book. So the only thing that came to mind when I saw this task was a title that made my shoulders slump: Ada, or Ardor thoroughly bested me in college. I was in a Nabokov senior seminar at the time, so it’s not like I wasn’t entirely primed for some intense textual gamesmanship, but I stalled out no later than a third of the way through. In class, our professor asked how many of us had failed to finish the reading. The ten or so of us English major Carleton kids (a species that typically finishes its reading) glanced nervously at each other. I don’t know who raised their hand first, but we all sheepishly followed suit.

The professor shrugged amiably. “This wouldn’t be okay normally [it really wouldn’t have been okay normally. – ed.],” he said, “but I expect it with this one.”

RHC 2018: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an Oprah Book Club selection.

I hate to admit this, but I don’t think I had read anything by Faulkner outside of a “A Rose for Emily” in my tenth grade English class. I often think back to the course descriptions in the Carleton catalog, particularly the entry for the class on Southern Gothic literature, and I want to go back in time and shake my former self until past me registered for that one.

I’m still totally shocked with myself for not taking that class.

The truth is that I haven’t read a whole lot out of one of the nastiest, lushest, most exciting (to me) bodies of regional American literature. I wish I’d read The Sound and the Fury at Carleton with that particular prof, who I loved (why didn’t I take that damn class???), but that opportunity is gone.

Anyway, some fifteen years later, I’m actively trying to rectify this gaping hole in my literary knowledge, and so I tackled The Sound and the Fury for this task. I did it like a good English major, too, by buying a used Norton Critical Edition and diving in, note-taking pen in hand.

RHC 2018: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book of social science.

Alternate: Read a book of true crime.

Arson is an odd crime, and American Fire is an odd story. In 2013, a couple were convicted of setting over seventy fires in rural Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. For the most part, the fires were set in abandoned structures, of which the former richest rural county in the state had plenty. These weren’t crimes intended to hurt anyone (at one scene, the arsonists had been careful to let chickens out before starting a fire).

As property crimes go, arson’s simplicity is positively elegant. It’s not an easy crime to solve, particularly when the criminals are exercising as much spontaneous nuttiness as Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick apparently exhibited. In this case, the hunt for the arson spree culprit(s) lasted about six months, spawning Facebook vigilante groups complete with merch to sell, conspiracy theories, and an oppressive public obsession with where the next blaze would be lit.

RHC 2018: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book with a female protagonist over the age of 60.

An Unnecessary Woman is narrated by Aaliya, a 72-year-old divorced reclusive atheist in Beirut. She is a fun character. She’s fierce, funny, and incredibly intelligent, and her inner life is the most intellectually rich of just about anyone I’ve encountered in fiction.

Aaliya spent most of her life working at a book store, but her real (unpaid, unread) work is translation. Her New Year’s ritual involves beginning a new translation project, which will eventually be loving placed in a cardboard box in the maid’s room, along with all her other manuscripts. She isn’t an academic, and she never shows anyone her work – she simply loves books and words for their own sake. I described her as an atheist, which isn’t entirely true. She names reading as her religion more than once, and it actually doesn’t sound like hyperbole. Her relationship with literature feels truly personally sacred.

In Defense of the Second Mrs. Maxim de Winter

LOHF Rebecca Readalong

If she’d wanted to, my mom could have been a devastatingly good librarian. She gifted me the right books every single Christmas and birthday, usually inscribed in the upper left inside corner in her impeccable penmanship. And at some point in junior high, my mom looked at the space on my bookshelf between Jane Eyre and Interview With a Vampire, and knew precisely what would fill it.

Rebecca was like catnip for me. At thirteen or fourteen, there weren’t enough stories in the entire world about dark, mysterious, older men carrying off sensitive young maidens. It also ticks a staggering number of genre boxes – it’s a ghost story, a haunted house story, a romance, a mystery, a coming of age story, etc. My edition is the mass market paperback, with swirling embossed gold letters adorning rippling red satin sheets. It’s intense, and I remember hiding it inside my seventh grade pre-algebra book because I didn’t want the football players in that class to see me reading it and make fun of me.

They did anyway, incidentally.

So when I saw that the Ladies of Horror Fiction, a recently launched platform designed to signal-boost female-identified writers, bloggers, and creators in Horrorland, was doing a community read of Rebecca, I headed to the shelf for my banged-up copy Mom gave me for Christmas twenty years ago, which has been on every shelf I’ve lived with, from Minnesota to Nanjing, China to now.

I’ve read the first eight chapters so far, and oof. This is very different reading as an adult, mostly consisting of wanting to grab the narrator by her shoulders and shake her until she starts seeing herself as a person. It’s very easy to get frustrated with her passivity and her immaturity. It’s hard to be inside the head of a character who hears the following marriage proposal and goes along with it:

“So that’s settled, isn’t it?” he said, going on with his toast and marmalade; “instead of being companion to Mrs. Van Hopper [her current employer], you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same” (53).

But let me defend this character for a minute. This is no Bella Swan. This is a young woman who is an orphan, in a middling caste in pre-war England, with very few choices in front of her. She works for an odious person and counts it a blessing to have reasonably good work. Her deep insecurity and self-abnegation may have internal roots, but god knows it’s reflected back at her everywhere she goes.

In spite of that, she’s maintained an imagination. It’s her imagination that does her in, when she attaches ridiculous fantasies to Maxim de Winter, who’d I’d argue is more or less emotionally abusing her, but it’s also the product of a sharp, emotional mind that’s basically sustaining itself without any sustenance from anyone else in her life. She can spin out a detailed, absorbing story from the smallest detail (see: her painfully funny nightmare about New York boys hitting on her – “D’you like hot music?”).

The sudden attention of Maxim ignites her imagination, particularly the idea of Manderley, which she recognizes from a postcard she bought on a holiday as a child. The fantasies she works up have very little to do with reality (she imagines announcing her engagement by laughing and saying, “we’re very much in love!”, when really Maxim just goes in and essentially buys her from Mrs. Van Hopper, out of her hearing) and everything to do with what she wants that she feels she’s not entitled to.

She’s also incredibly socially perceptive; she sees exactly how loathsome Mrs. Van Hopper is and how painfully aware everyone else is of that fact. She can read Maxim like a book, too (she just doesn’t trust her interpretation and gives him enormous heapings of benefit of the doubt that he doesn’t deserve). This makes her the perfect person to be sensitive to Rebecca’s mostly metaphorical ghost who lingers all over everything.

And I know that the main complaint we all have of her is that she’s passive and lets everyone walk all over her, back up to be sure they rub off all the mud on her, and then drag the carriage wheels across her while they’re at it. But this is also the same woman who, after Maxim suggests they have lots in common, fires back: “you forget. You have a home and I don’t.”

I humbly suggest that she’s got more brass than she gets credit for. It’s certainly not her defining characteristic, but the insurmountable social forces of gender and class she’s up against don’t entirely shut her down. That’s got to be worth something.

And I think she and Daphne du Maurier are occasionally really funny, which doesn’t get as much air time as the novel’s moody air of dread. Submitted as evidence, when she’s caught rummaging around for matches because she’s too intimidated to ask a servant to light a fire for her:

“The fire in the library is not usually lit until the afternoon, Madam,” said [Frith, the butler]. “Mrs. de Winter always used the morning room. There is a good fire in there. Of course if you should wish to have the fire in the library as well I shall give orders for it to be lit.”

“Oh no,” I said. “I would not dream of it. I will go into the morning-room. Thank you, Frith.”

“You will find writing paper, and pens, and ink in there, Madam,” he said. “Mrs. de Winter always did all her correspondence and telephoning in the morning-room, after breakfast. The house telephone is there, should you wish to speak to Mrs. Danvers.”

“Thank you, Frith,” I said.

I turned away into the hall again, humming a little tune to give an air of confidence. I could not tell him that I had never seen the morning-room, that Maxim had not shown it to me the night before. I knew he was standing in the entrance of the dining-room, watching me, as I went across the hall, and that I must make some show of knowing my way. There was a door to the left of the great staircase, and I went recklessly toward it, praying in my heart that it would take me to my goal, but when I came to it and opened it I saw that it was a garden-room, a place for odds and ends; there was a table where flowers were done, there were basket chairs stacked against the wall, and a couple of mackintoshes too, hanging on a peg. I came out, a little defiantly, glancing across the hall, and saw Frith still standing there. I had not deceived him though, not for a moment.

“You go through the drawing-room to the morning-room, Madam,” he said, “through the door there, on your right, this side of the staircase. You go straight through the double drawing-room, and then turn to your left.”

“Thank you, Frith,” I said humbly, pretending no longer (81).

I am enjoying revisiting Rebecca, even if I’m astonished at how awful Maxim is now that I’m reading it as an adult and how frustrating the narrator can be. But it’s still pretty propulsive reading for me, and truthfully, for all her passivity and occasional total idiocy, I can relate to the awkward fish-out-of-water second Mrs. de Winter, who’s in way, way, way over her head and has no idea what she’s doing but is still gamely trying to cover up for herself. This isn’t a perfect character or a perfect book, but I do think it’s worth hearing her out.

 

RHC 2018: The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an essay anthology.

This is a really great collection of essays and poetry about race in the United States. It was published in 2017, and many of these pieces are responses to the epidemic of police violence against black Americans during the Obama administration. It was a tough read here in 2018, knowing that shortly after the events that spurred this collection, which is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, white supremacism has only become more visible and more confident. It’s not a very physically heavy book, but man does it have some serious intellectual and emotional weight.

The book consists of fifteen essays and three poems, divided into three sections: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. In the Legacy section, writers reflect on the past through all kinds of lenses – family history, a visit to James Baldwin’s Paris residence, an aching search for information on slave burials in New England (“Lonely in America” by Wendy S. Walters, one of my favorites in the collection), genetic testing (“Cracking the Code,” by Jesmyn Ward, another favorite), a reexamination of the historical record regarding Phillis Wheatley’s husband, and Carol Anderson’s article “White Rage,” which was expanded into a book.

RHC 2018: Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a one-sitting book.

I knew what I was going to read for this task as soon as I saw it. I waited for a day when I went into work late and my daughter was at daycare, giving me a delicious stretch of time to eat ice cream and savor this one entirely at my leisure.

Full disclosure: I’m not particularly objective when it comes to this particular writer. Here’s why. In 2015 or so, I’d attended a free workshop at the Fayetteville Public Library by Toni Jensen, a professor in the University of Arkansas’ creative writing department. Her presentation was about mashing up genre and literary technique. It was a really good one, too.

A million years ago, I’d thought I was going to apply to this particular MFA program but had been put off by its crystal clear statement regarding genre – no, and get offa my lawn, I think was roughly what the department website said at the time. So I was pleasantly surprised by Toni Jensen’s approach, which didn’t assign any moral value to the terms “genre” and “literary.” Instead, she had a very practical explanation of what fell under each column and how and when it made sense to mix things up. She asked us all what we wrote, and I shyly copped to horror. She suggested I read Stephen Graham Jones.