Reading by Whim

… unless you need a break. That’s okay too.

Last week I couldn’t be bothered to blog because I was CONSUMED with reading fever. I read two books start to finish and took a chunk out of my reread of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I simply didn’t feel like stopping my reading streak to bang out some words and fling them into the internet.

I was also super stoked about the #24in48 readathon. Then Saturday dawned and I decided I didn’t feel like reading. So I didn’t. I did not read one ding-dang thing for the entire weekend. Instead, I did a bunch of meal prep, hung out with the kids, met a friend for coffee, and played a stupid cat-Tetris game on my tablet. It was lovely.

For so many years I’ve tried to set a daily goal of reading at least 50 pages every work day and 100 pages on my days off. I’ve been keeping a reading log and I’ve noticed that removing that page number goal helps me accomplish more reading. There are days when I don’t want to read and then there are days that I will read a book start to finish. I have been using a timing app to keep up with how much I read. It dings when I hit 1.5 hours cumulatively in a day, but there are days when I don’t time at all and days when I will get up to three or four hours of reading.

It has taken me a long time to realize this, but when I can still be a reader even if I don’t read all the time. I have friends who are runners and they certainly don’t run every day and always. I have one friend that Is a baker and she doesn’t bake every single day. And those artificial goals of 50 to 100 pages limits my reading experience to pages and doesn’t really say anything about the difficulty of the text. 50 pages of middle grades novel translate into less than 30 minutes. 50 pages of a giant book with small print can be more like two hours.

I’d encourage all of you to read when you want to read and if you don’t want to read then don’t. Whatever readalong, readathon, or reading goal you’ve set yourself is bendable.

Having a weekend of non-reading has wet my appetite to crawl back into a book. I’ve got Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial as my main book for the week. I’m also dipping into Harry Potter, Maggie Nelson Poetry, Plath letters, and a couple of non-fiction reads. Now let’s see how this week of reading shakes out.

Readerly Rambles: 1/19/2019

What I read:  I wrapped up a biography of Alice James this week and it was such an immersive reading experience.

What I’m reading: I’m about halfway through Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle. I love Barbara Pym so much; perfectly drawn characters, loads of domestic details, and so much wit! I’m also reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoneix before bed each night. The Letters of Sylvia Plath, v. 1 reading is still underway and I pick up Maggie Nelson’s Bluets whenever I need some poetry in my day.

What’s up next: I have The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America on my desk at work. My hope is that book will be my lunch break read. I also have a copy of Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London on my stacks to read. I’ve been in a “Victorian true crime” mood lately.

I know this is the briefest of blog posts and mostly written to document my reading for my own eyes, but it is currently cold and rainy and my quilt, coffee, and book are calling my name. Happy Reading!

2. Alice James: A Biography by Jean Strouse

367 pages
Started: 1/5/19
Finished: 1/13/19
4 Stars
Classics Club List

Alice James (b. 1848) was the younger sister of novelist Henry James and philosopher/psychologist William James. The fact that it is easiest to describe who she is in relation to the famous men in her life pretty much sums up the difficulty in being Alice. A younger sister with a brain and potential who was coddled, smothered and groomed to be dainty, delicate, and above all pure.

This biography starts with Alice’s parents and their odd ideas on childhood and parenting and then moves through Alice’s childhood where the boys of the James family (William, Henry, Bob, and Wilkie) had their education prioritized with little thought to Alice’s future. The reader then learns about Alice’s bouts with nervous illness, her friendships, and her growing restlessness. Alice never married, but had a “Boston marriage” with her friend Katherine Loring. There is speculation as to whether Loring and James were simply close friends or had more of an intimate connection (I’m on team queer Alice). Alice cared for her father after her mother’s death and soon after her father’s death she traveled to England to live near her brother, Henry. Strouse extends Alice’s biography past her death and discusses the publication of Alice’s diary and the editorial changes made throughout the years.

I’ve always been intrigued by Alice James. I’ve read bits and pieces through the years about her and those descriptions of Alice rested on her relationship with her brothers, her spinsterhood, and her rumored hypochondria. After reading Strouse’s biography, I’m aware that her physical and psychological issues were much more complex. Strouse reports the various diagnoses given to Alice throughout her life (both physical and psychological) but doesn’t spend time trying to land on a precise cause for Alice’s frequent bouts with illness. In fact, what I enjoyed most about Strouse’s writing is that she situates Alice within the cultural context of Victorian-era America. Woman’s education, suffrage, and healthcare are all discussed in this biography and that macro view of history helps the reader to understand Alice.

One example is Strouse’s explanation of illness in the Victorian-era:

“The symptoms that led Alice to seek treatment from Dr. Taylor were never mentioned. Certainly she was ‘delicate’ — easily excited, high-strung, ‘nervous.’ But that was the way middle-class Victorian young ladies were supposed to be. With its range of meanings, from refined, sensitive, subtle, and gentle to sickly and frail, the word delicate described the mid-Victorian ideal of beauty: a graceful languor, pallor, and vulnerability – even to the point of illness – were seen as enhancing the female form. ‘Refinement’ drew attention away from the base, ordinary body; illness delicately drew it back.”

pp. 100-101.

Strouse also includes a note about one Victorian doctor’s popular rest cure:

“Mitchell’s rest cure removed the patient from her family and put her to bed. There, she was fed (often to excess), massaged, read to, helped to sit up, turn over, bathe, and urinate. Under this infantilizing regime, Mitchell’s patients generally gained weight and lost their neuroasthenic pallor.”

p.105

These rest cures were further seen as dependent on the strength and forcefulness of the male doctor to ensure that there were no women who enjoyed being separated from household duties and child care. Women were isolated, infantilized, force-fed, and trivialized until they were able to suppress high-strung emotion, energy, and nerves. That certainly increases the horror of books like The Yellow Wallpaper.

Reading about Alice James has intrigued me and I’m eager to get a copy of her journals to read and I’d also like to explore some more books on women’s healthcare (spoiler alert: it still sucks), education, and political involvement from this time.

Sparking Privilege

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for the past week about this Marie Kondo Tidying-Up show and it is the same bee that flew in my bonnet when the book was published. Before I get in rant mode let me establish a few things:

  • I’m not saying that if you are “tidying-up” that you are a bad awful person and should stop. By all means, spark all the joy you want and fill up my thrift stores with stuff I can afford.
  • There are things I like about the KonMari method. The folding clothes and putting them in the drawer upright is pretty cool. I can also see how this method could be useful with someone processing grief and loss.

In other words, if this works for you then cool cool cool. But I’m going to throw some discomfort your way for your consideration.

This is the most privileged shit I’ve seen in quite a long time. Roll with me here for a minute.

In February of 2000, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Alicia Hope. It was my freshman year of college and I had left an abusive relationship, moved in with my parents, and was going to college. I was so scared and unsure of myself and more than anything I wanted my child to be brave and kind. I named my daughter after the woman, Alicia Appleman-Jurman, who wrote the common reader for my freshman class. Alicia Appleman-Jurman was a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust. Her entire family was murdered, Appleman-Jurman escaped, fled, and even cared for other orphans when she was only sixteen-years-old. Appleman-Jurman’s memoir was the common reader for my freshman class and it had such a life-changing impact on me.

A college staff member helped me connect with Appleman-Jurman and we exchanged letters for several years. She often sent my daughter thoughtful gifts of small toys, crayons, and coloring books. Each box was packed with care and she used newspaper, bits of fabric, and old clothing to pack the box. The thoughtful gifts were not new and shiny but used and loved and thoughtfully sent to my daughter. I do not know if Appleman-Jurman had PTSD, but she survived concentration camps, lived on rotting potatoes while sleeping in fields, and witnessed the murder of her entire family. I do feel confident in saying that Appleman-Jurman experienced horror, loss, poverty, and want. Of course, she isn’t going to discard perfectly good items. I’m pretty sure that she didn’t ditch all of her newspapers, bits of fabric, and unused clothing because they didn’t “spark joy.” No, she held onto items and then used them to cushion the joy she sent me and my daughter.

When you experience the combination of terror and want it has the ability to change you.

Appleman-Jurman’s memoir gave me the strength and inspiration to tackle being a single mother. Let me make clear that I am not equating single parenthood with surviving the Holocaust, but I felt able to brave the small things because she braved so many much bigger things.

What a privilege it is to hold an item in your hand and ask if it sparks joy. If it is joyful then it stays. If not, then it goes. If you have ever experienced food scarcity, poverty, or trauma then you may be more concerned with sparking survival and joy hasn’t even entered your vocabulary.

In a relationship with my abuser, I lost many things that sparked my joy. Items were intentionally withheld or destroyed. As a fat woman living in poverty, I relied on thrift stores for my clothing; I had to buy what would fit even if it was ugly and uncomfortable. Clothing I bought that really sparked joy was often purchased with credit cards or student loans and I probably shouldn’t have purchased those “joy sparking” dresses and sweaters. I didn’t throw out my child’s old shoes because if her one good pair was busted there was no guarantee that I could get her a replacement pair. She’d have to wear some less-busted, but slightly smaller shoes for a while.

If you had asked me to pile up my clothes, my cool-whip containers that functioned as to-go dishes, and the cheap broken toys my child had and only keep what sparked joy, then you would have seen what sparking shame looked like.

Oh I cannot get rid of this… because what if I need to leave again, what if I lose my job, what if I cannot get a ride to the store, what if I am in need again? I found ways to pile up and appreciate the other shame-sparking things necessary to the poor. I went to the “crisis pregnancy center” to sit through video programs on Jesus-y topics to earn “points” to exchange for diapers I needed for my baby. Sometimes, I got boxes of food from churches or food pantries and maybe the food wasn’t the greatest and didn’t spark joy but I damn well ate the food because I didn’t want to be hungry. One Christmas not-too-far in the past I returned Christmas gifts for my kids a few weeks before Christmas because I needed money for bills. And that was getting rid of the joy sparking and having to sit with shame in order to survive.

Now, I feel like I should definitely state that I have a strong network of family and friends who have helped me immensely with food, rides, clothing, gifts for my kids, and books and coffee. I am well loved and I know if things got really bad I had folks in my corner. For example, that low Christmas my friends, my parents, and my husband’s mom really made sure my kids had a great Christmas. The people who had my back sparked an awful lot of joy in my life. Many folks do not have the support system I have and that makes it all the more difficult.

During this on-going discussion of Tidying-up, one friend remarked that going through her items highlighted the privilege she has… that she could see items piling up and saw how much she had that she didn’t need or want. I understand that, but what is troubling to me is this zeitgeist of “sparking joy.” Even getting the chance to ask if an item “sparks joy” comes from a place of security. There are other interventions that are better are more sustainable for everyone such as increasing social infrastructure and supports and increasing access to social workers who are able to tackle the social impact of poverty and trauma.

There are also other ways of approaching a minimalist lifestyle that isn’t centered on something as ambiguous and privileged as joy. For example, the radical notion that joy isn’t a sustainable emotion. I have moments of joy, but I’ll settle for contentment and security. Asking questions like, “is this item useful? or “would this item be of use to others?” would promote more of a sharing-resources approach instead of chasing after this nebulous concept of “joy.”

In closing, let me say that if you are KonMari-ing the hell out of your life then go right ahead. I only want folks to be aware that sometimes getting rid of so much stuff because of a fleeting feeling is not something all of us can do and watching so many friends ditch things with such ease gives me an anxious twitch.

Readerly Rambles: Bout of Books 24 edition


I’m super enjoying my new found reading mojo and I thought I’d participate in Bout of Books 24 to continue prioritizing my reading time. My goal for this week is to push myself to read for 2 hours a day. That seems like a doable goal, but one that gives me a little bit of a challenge.

So how has my reading year gone thus far?

What I Read: My first book of the year was Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale and I’m so pleased my first read of the year was such a winner.

What I’m Reading: I started reading the first volume of the letters of Sylvia Plath. I read the introduction and the timeline and this week I’ll start in on the actual letters. I also started re-reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets because I had a random 1 a.m. need to read something by Nelson. I started an NYRB book yesterday, Alice James: A Biography by Jean Strouse. It is endlessly fascinating. Check out this segment about Henry James, Sr. (that’s pa to Alice James):

#victoriantidepodchallenge
I don’t want to hear anymore complaining about “the kids these days.”

What’s up next: After I finish up the Alice James this week I plan on digging into Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle for a Barbara Pym  Facebook group read. 

Happy Reading, y’all!

1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

347 pages
Started: 1/1/19
Finished: 1/5/19
5 Stars
1st in the Winternight triology

I picked this book up last winter with a gift card. I was searching for a winter read that was cozy yet adventuresome. I couldn’t wait to dig in.

Then it set on my shelves from nearly a year before I picked it up.

Once again, I was hunting for a book that would have hints of Angela Carter, but more of a cozy read instead of a romp through postmodern literature. I turned to this book and fell completely in love with Arden’s atmospheric prose, the headstrong heroine Vasya, a wintery world brimming with folklore.

The story begins during a lean and unforgiving Russian winter. Dunya – a nurse to a brood of children – is telling her charges a story of Morozko the frost king. The mother of the children, Marina, enters the room and listens to the tale of Marfa receiving a dowry from the ice king. The story ends and soon we learn that the story Dunya is telling is much closer than a myth to the family. Soon the reader learns that Marina is pregnant with Vasya and that this daughter is destined to be special.

As always, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of the book. The plot is a page turner, but the world building and characters are strongly developed. I enjoyed Arden’s gift of pacing the tale and allowing it to build slowly. I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy and the third books just been published as well. I think I’m going to hold off on gulping down the entire series to make it last longer.

A Return to the Classics Club

Ages ago I had a Classics Club list. Scratch that, I actually didn’t make a list, but figured I read old things all the time and would read fifty classics in the space of five years. Then I realized I was wholly unaware of my classics intake so I made a list of books and put a lot of timelines and artificial goals on that list. Of course, that meant that I no longer wanted to read that list.

Whelp, I’m back and ready to read some classics in an intentional, but not-overly-strict manner. Obviously, this meant building a new list. My goal is to read these fifty classics by 2021. Fifty classics over three years should be doable, right?

I cheated a wee bit. All of my classics are books written more than fifty years ago (perhaps not published) with the exception of two biographies of women from the Victorian era. I assembled this list of exclusively women writers by sifting through my shelves and lists of NYRB, Viragos, and Persephone titles. 

Classics Club List

  • Alice James: A Biography by Jean Strouse
  • Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby
  • Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
  • Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson
  • Castle Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
  • Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
  • Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
  • Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
  • Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
  • Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
  • East Lynne by Ellen Wood
  • The Far Cry by Emma Smith
  • A Fortnight in September by R C Sheriff
  • Godwit’s Fly by Robin Hyde
  • Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
  • High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
  • Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
  • The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
  • The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Letters of Sylvia Plath, v. 1
  • The Letters of Sylvia Plath, v.2
  • The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
  • Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford
  • Mariana by Monica Dickens
  • Mary Olivier by May Sinclair
  • The New House by Lettice Cooper
  • The New York Stories of Edith Wharton
  • Old Manor House by Charlotte Smith
  • A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  • The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
  • The Pumpkin Eater Penelope Mortimer
  • Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • Three Sisters by May Sinclair
  • To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
  • The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
  • The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch
  • The Uninvited by Dorothy McCardle
  • The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger
  • Westwood by Stella Gibbons
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns
  • Without my Cloak by Kate O’Brien
  • Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre

I’m truly excited for this list and I cannot wait for the next Classics Club spin to get things started!