How to Be a Heroine, or, What I Learned from Reading Too Much, by Samantha Ellis

heroineAny dedicated reader will be able to list at least one book that, at some point in her life, became part of her DNA. Books like these are past admiration or even love; they are simply part of the reason the reader is who she is. For Samantha Ellis, who spent years of her life trying to be Catherine Earnshaw, the foremost of these books is Wuthering Heights.

Ellis’ choice of such a headstrong and impulsive character belies her own capacity for insightful critical detachment. In her memoir of a lifetime of reading, How to be a Heroine, Ellis analyzes her early impressions of the books that made her who she is, and explores the ways in which her adult reactions diverge from those initial impressions. Readers with their own analogues to Ellis’ relationship with Wuthering Heights will fondly recognize the ways in which novels we once knew become larger and more complex when we revisit them as adults.

Of course, the larger and more complex we ourselves become, the more the books grow with us, and fortunately for us, Ellis is an intelligent reader, capable of holding multiple contradictory ideas about one book at the same time. She can, for example, admire Anne Shirley, of the Anne of Green Gables series, for her empathy while lamenting that she ceases to be the most interesting person in the series after she marries Gilbert Blythe in book five. She can still derive a childlike delight from Anne’s whimsy, while also realizing that in too many books, “when bold, clever, creative girls… became women, something happened. They became less themselves.”

Ellis’ ability to be both unquestioningly loyal to what she loves while interrogating its message means her own book sits somewhere between literary criticism and book club reader’s guide. The latter description is by no means pejorative; if anything, it broadens the scope of Ellis’ book that she discusses characters as both literary vehicles and as if they were real people: she gushes that she “loves” Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, whom she refers to exclusively as “Lizzy”. She admires Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for being independent and self-respecting, but also wonders, “Can a woman not be equal to her husband unless he’s wounded?” She finds space for her enjoyment of Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, along with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s feminist reading of the former in their seminal work of criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic. Then she turns around and plays “Snog, Marry, Avoid” with Mr. Rochester, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, and Daphne DuMaurier’s Jem Merlyn.

Inevitably, Ellis’ changed perspectives on the formative heroines of her reading life spill over into real life. As a young Iraqi Jewish girl living in London, she relates the experience of feeling caught between two worlds, one of which is a familial homeland she has never seen and can never return to. Though her mother hopes that a young Samantha will grow up to make a good marriage, the author as an adult realizes the real reason she relates to the fairy tale The Little Mermaid is because she understands the mermaid’s feeling of belonging neither on land nor at sea.

Ellis also links her life to fiction when she discusses her recurring seizures, which have long been a source of pain and confusion for her, in the context of books about suffering women, such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Color Purple, and The Bell Jar. She learns to regard suffering as something that can be fought and conquered rather than as a fated state of being.

It is in this connection between fiction and reality that How to Be a Heroine becomes truly meaningful. In closing her memoir with a chapter entitled “Scheherezade”, Ellis acknowledges that characters, especially female characters, only truly gain agency when they stop just being characters. They must become storytellers. Whether that means literally taking up the pen to write, as Jane Eyre did, or simply choosing to buck the standard narrative, like Thomas Hardy’s Tess boldly rising up to greet her captors after killing her husband, Ellis rejects the notion that life just happens to women. At the same time, she eschews the need to know what comes next: she can be her own author without ever needing to steer herself towards a foregone conclusion. Her book will appeal to readers of a similar bent, who welcome the chance to question, learn, and grow simply for the pleasure of doing so.

This book was given to me free of charge as a popmatters.com reviewer.

On Book Collecting and Purging

I am moving in just about ten days. I have been in my current apartment for over eight years, which is four years longer than I have ever lived in any one residence.

It’s a little weird.

I read a little less than many other book bloggers, but still more than nearly any other person I am actually acquainted with, so if I didn’t take care with the books I kept, I would be completely overrun. I do a pretty good job: I keep only books I love so much that I either consistently re-read or refer to them, or plan to re-read someday, or that were important to my intellectual development in some way, or that remind me that I was once kind of smart (what’s up, Riverside Chaucer? Is that my copy of Ryan and Rivkin’s Literary Theory next to you? I guess I’ll never read La Princesse de Clèves again, but still…)

Even so, I ended up having to chuck out quite a few books. I owned up to the fact that I would never get around to reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens. (That one kind of hurt.) And I was never going to re-read compendiums 1 or 2 of The Walking Dead. (I’m at peace with this.) But that’s another thing: I was amused by the seemingly disparate elements of my nature that seemed to manifest in the kinds of books I owned. A sucker for pseudo-scientific personality theories as well as a die-hard feminist (and please don’t imagine that I am conflating the two merely by mentioning them in the same sentence), I said a silent prayer of apology as I slid bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, which was the only volume slim enough to stuff into the small remaining space in a full box, in between my Meyers-Briggs and Enneagram books.

In case you’re curious, I’m a type 1 INFJ. Also a Capricorn. High introversion, neuroticism, and openness, moderate amiability and conscientiousness.

As I packed, I kept finding more and more small pockets of books I’d crammed into various corners of my 5oo-square-foot apartment. “I think I’m almost done,” I said aloud.

“Nope,” my husband called helpfully from the couch, looking up from his episode of Arrow. “You missed those books down there.”

Oh, yeah. Those books. Heh.

Does anyone actually have a psychologically cohesive collection of books? I don’t know. I do know I am glad I’ve made some room for new books to take up space in my home and my head.

2014 Books in Review

When I think about where I was and what I was doing this time last year, it’s all a little fuzzy, but when I think about what I was reading, it feels like it was just a few weeks ago! Notwithstanding gaps in my blogging and reading due to some personal projects sucking up most of my free time, I read 86 books this year, four more than last year. 78 of these were NOT re-reads, which means seven more new (to me) books than last year. Weirdly, this only totaled to about a thousand more pages than last year, perhaps because I read quite a few whoppers in 2013, and very few books that were over 600 pages this year.

My favorites were:

The Golem and the Djinni, by Helene Wecker: I loved the magical elements, but what has stayed with me is how Chava, the golem, and Ahmad, the djinni, come to understand and appreciate each other’s strengths and limitations. Wecker’s debut novel has the sparkle of a fairy tale, but its nuanced treatment will be best appreciated by adults. I very much hope to see something new from this author within the next year or two.

Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith: This is the kind of book that takes you over. It is funny and sad and smart and gripping. It’s the kind of book that makes me roll my eyes at the YA haters. I’m forcing myself to wait to read it again till I’ve forgotten more of it, but that’s going to be hard, as I suspect it’ll stay with me for a long time. I go on at length in my review.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin: Just freakin’ gorgeous. I can’t believe I didn’t read it sooner. My only excuse is that I read the first book in her Earthsea series about fifteen years ago and wasn’t as impressed as I’d thought I would be. Well, now I might have to re-read it, because Left Hand of Darkness has not only a strong, skillful prose style and some masterful world-building, but also a love story that moved me to tears. I’d go so far as to say it could be appealing even to non-sci-fi fans. It starts out as a story of political maneuvers and halfway through spins off into something completely different, and the composition of that arc will inspire admiration in anyone who appreciates good writing of any genre.

But my single biggest literary development of 2014 was the discovery of Sarah Waters. I was looking for something spooky to read and kept seeing recommendations for The Little Stranger. Well, after raving about that, I went on to her newest novel, The Paying Guests, and then read her other three novels, all inside of a month. My favorite of these was Fingersmith, a novel set in Victorian England that features basically everything I love about Victorian literature: doubles, sham marriages, the madhouse, laudanum, conspiracies, and interrogations of class and gender constraints. (And the BBC film adaptation is wonderful.) I loved all Waters’ novels, but these three became instant favorites with me. I may write up my thoughts on Fingersmith at some point this year just because so much of it is still rolling around in my head.

Although I’m still not sure I can call it a favorite, I re-read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette this year and was impressed all over again by what a weird, uncompromising book it is. In her creation of Lucy Snowe, Brontë writes a deeply flawed character whose problems are partly of her own making, and partly due to a world that did not easily accommodate intellectual women. Brontë shows how Lucy is buffeted by forces outside her control, but also how she is complicit in her own alienation. The atmosphere is dream-like, and the plot would be ludicrous in its series of coincidences and ambiguously supernatural elements were it not obvious that Lucy is a highly prejudiced and unobjective narrator. It is a puzzling and challenging book.

Less puzzling, but perhaps more enchanting, were The Snow Child, a beautiful and simple story by Eowyn Ivey, and Far, Far Away, by Tom McNeal, of which I was at first highly skeptical but then completely wowed by.

I’m hoping very much to get back to regular posting around the end of this month, especially since I’ve already got a backlog of books waiting for me to read!

September Yeas and Nays

September brought me the gift of Sarah Waters, whom I’ve been unable to stop gushing about to anyone who will listen. I can’t wait to read everything she’s ever written.

Most everything else was pretty good, too. ;)

The Stranger’s Child Alan Hollinghurst YEA. Great writing, very funny, eye-opening historical fiction.
Persuasion (Annotated) Jane Austen/David Shaphard YEA. I adore annotated versions of books I already know and love.
The Secret Place Tana French YEA. Classic Tana French: great crime-solving procedural enriched by excellent character work.
The Little Stranger Sarah Waters YEA. I just discovered Sarah Waters and I’m already on my third book by her. Beautiful writing, thought-provoking themes, and page-turning plots.
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel YEA. Such a brief and absorbing book, you might almost miss the care that clearly went into its composition.
Dr. Zhivago Boris Pasternak MAYBE. Sometimes I’m just in the mood for the heady combination of philosophy and romance the great Russian novels provide, and Dr. Zhivago certainly delivered on the former, but the famous romance that I’d always heard the book was famous for was not as central as I’d thought it would be. Zhivago and especially Lara are both great characters, but they’re more interesting on their own than they are together. Still, it has the sweep of the Russian epics: you are reading about many people’s lives and how history bent and broke them. This is one you have to be in the mood for.
The Paying Guests Sarah Waters YEA. HELL YEA. This just came out last month to rave reviews, and it deserves every one. It’s half sweet romance and half nail-biting Hitchcock-style suspense. I finished reading it in a state of such anxiety that I couldn’t calm down for hours afterward.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

I’ll get to saying something serious in a minute, but in the interest of honesty, you should know that my immediate reaction upon finishing The Little Stranger was to throw my head back and proclaim, “Ugggghhhhh, this is siiiiickeningly gooooood omg I caaaaaan’t.”

strangerMy second reaction was to order two more Sarah Waters books. It was one of the only books I’ve read this year that I closed and instantly knew was a favorite. It has subtlety, gothicism, and a strain of feminism, all bound up with some fantastic writing.

As a child, Dr. Faraday was taken by his mother into Hundreds Hall to see the house, but only from the doorway dividing the back and front of the house. His mother was a servant, and it would not have been proper for her son to be above-stairs. He stands entranced by the wealth and beauty of the house while he waits for his mother to return.

Nearly thirty years later, post WWII, he returns to Hundreds Hall as a doctor, filling in for a colleague who is on an emergency case. Colonel Ayres, the squire of the manor, is long dead, but the middle-aged Mrs. Ayres still lives there with her two adult children, Roderick and Caroline. Faraday comes to treat the Ayres’ young maid, who is one of only two servants remaining in the once-bustling home, but returns to perform a series of experimental treatments on Roderick, who injured his leg in the war. Roderick, it seems, also has some anxiety issues from his combat experiences, which are only exacerbated by his family’s dwindling wealth and the house that is falling down around them.

Waters’ plot has a deliciously slow build. At first, there are only hints that something may be wrong, hints so slight they might be dismissed out of hand if they didn’t continue to accrue so relentlessly. Then one day, Gyp, the gentle family dog, snaps and attacks a young child.  Gyp is put down as a result, but the housemaid insists it wasn’t his fault: “There’s a bad thing in this house… and he makes wicked things happen!’ The maid is fourteen years old and flighty; Dr. Faraday tells her she’s tired and silly and considers the matter closed.

But creepy things keep happening. Strange burn marks appear in the walls. A fire breaks out mysteriously. There’s a tapping in the walls. Again, they’re all things that could be explained by natural causes, but cumulatively, they grate on the family’s already worn-thin nerves. Roderick has panic attacks and refuses to sleep, believing he must watch for the house’s mischievous spirit so that he can keep it from harming his mother or sister. Mrs. Ayres starts to believe her first child, who died at age six before Caroline and Roderick were born, is trying to contact her. And Caroline tries to convince Dr. Faraday that the house is no good for any of them, but most frequently meets with a dismissive explanation and a condescending, “You’re tired.”

Dr. Faraday does not intend to be condescending, and as his first-person narration shows, he is certainly not aware that he is being so. It would not occur to him that he could be so: despite his increasing intimacy with the family, he is still reminded periodically that he is not of their class. He learns, to his surprise, that he is rumored to be courting Caroline, and though no one else seems to find it strange, he still thinks of himself as the boy who was not allowed in the house thirty years ago. Waters uses his relationship with Caroline to show the reader his sexism and insecurity. She does this so subtly that I found myself having to pull back from the book, to consider events from my own perspective, because I was so enveloped in the voice of the novel.

It’s smart and creepy as hell. And the writing itself is just so perfect: clean but warm and elegant, with a slight formality befitting the period. It has the atmosphere of Rebecca meets ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (it’s no coincidence one of the characters is a highly nervous person named Roderick), and the pacing and eeriness of the film The Others. Spooky and sad as it all was, I was smiling as I closed the book. All this, and she has a trilogy of Victorian period novels? I’ve definitely just found a new favorite.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

elevenAfter a plague wipes out nearly the entire human population, and the electrical grid has crashed, one of the characters in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven notices the stars becoming brighter: “One of the great scientific questions of Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now.” Another character will muse on the nature of subatomic particles, and how they are “constantly vanishing and reappearing.” Mandel is a lovely and careful writer who makes metaphors of facts, for their functionality as well as for their beauty. In her novel, the characters are the interconnected stars, though they vanish and reappear from each other’s lives or memories, and the process by which they re-connect offers a thread of hope in this sometimes sad, but never pessimistic novel.

Kirsten Raymonde, though she doesn’t know it, connects nearly all of the characters in the book. She is a player in the Traveling Symphony, a troupe that performs Shakespeare and classical music for the various settlements through which it passes. Kirsten was only eight at the time of the plague, and remembers very little of the world before, though she does clearly recall being onstage when famous actor Arthur Leander has a heart attack while playing King Lear.

Shortly before his death, Arthur gave Kirsten a set of comics called “Station Eleven,” about a space station designed to be like a small planet. Because of problems with the station’s functioning, the sun mechanism has stopped working correctly and the planet is forever trapped in either twilight or total darkness.  Dr. Eleven, the comic’s hero, tries to forget “the sweetness of earth” as Kirsten strives to remember what it was like to walk into a room, flip a switch, and see the room become flooded with light.

Now, twenty years later, Kirsten and her group encounter a cult of people who call themselves “the light.” Their prophet takes young girls as wives and kidnaps hostages in exchange for weapons.  In Kirsten’s chapters, Mandel takes us closer and closer to a reckoning between the Symphony and “the light.” In other chapters, we are taken back in time to Arthur’s life, to the life of his first wife, Miranda, and to the life of Jeevan, a paramedic who was at Arthur’s final performance and tried to save his life.  We also see what happens to Arthur’s former best friend, Clark, who is stranded at an airport after the planes are all grounded.

Mandel, with three previous novels to her name, manages these plot threads sure-handedly. Each character’s individual story has its own integrity, yet contributes meaningfully to the whole. Mandel’s aplomb comes through in her prose as well, which can be poetic but is also simple, as if she has nothing to prove.

It’s the kind of book whose subject matter is the stuff of science fiction, but whose focus steers it more in the direction of that broader designation, speculative fiction.  For Mandel, the plague is less of an event in itself than a device for creating a certain set of problems for her characters.  She is more concerned with how her characters are shaped by the new world. There are fewer people in the world now, but the loss of technology means those that are left must depend on each other more closely than ever before. Even as they share a love of performing and a belief in the importance of beauty in a devastated world, the members of the Traveling Symphony experience the same frustrations any group of people thrown into close proximity would. On the inside of one of their caravans, someone has scribbled the quote, “Hell is other people.” (Someone wiser and more knowing of the ways of the world has crossed out “people” and written “flutes.”)

Mandel offers another twist on the post-apocalyptic novel through her refusal to make the end of civilization mean the end of the world altogether, or to make any one obstacle the all-or-nothing battle for survival. Again and again her characters’ experiences confirm that human troubles, though ubiquitous, are transitory. In this way, Mandel forgoes the standard dystopian drama of a struggle for survival in exchange for the thought expressed by the Symphony’s slogan, “Because survival is insufficient.” It’s not whether her characters survive, because we know that at some point or other they will all die. No, Station Eleven is about how they’re going to live in the meantime.

This book was given to me free of charge for review as a popmatters.com reviewer.

Honest Book Synopses: The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst

strangersIn the tradition of Honest Trailers (which are hilarious, if you haven’t watched any), here’s my second Honest Plot Synopsis. Because sometimes the blurb on the back of the book just spins your expectations in the completely wrong direction. For example:

In the late summer of 1913 the young poet Cecil Valance comes to stay at ‘Two Acres’, the home of his close Cambridge friend George Sawle, and of his sister, Daphne. The weekend will be one of excitements and confusions for all the Sawles, a weekend in which a poem is written which will become a touchstone for a generation, an evocation of an England about to change for ever.

Linking the Sawle and Valance families irrevocably, the shared intimacies of this weekend become legendary events in a larger story, told and interpreted in different ways over the ensuing century, and subjected to the scrutiny of critics and biographers with their own agendas and anxieties. In a sequence of widely separated episodes we follow the two families through startling changes in fortune and circumstance.

At the centre of this often richly comic history of sexual mores and literary reputation runs the story of Daphne, from innocent girlhood to wary old age. Around her Hollinghurst draws an absorbing picture of an England constantly in flux.

I mean, throw me a a book about rich English people pre-World Wars and I’m there. I am an ideal product of Western education in that I love reading about some Rich White People Problems. Oppress me, my masters! I in turn will muse longingly on your castled existence of sloping green lawns and halcyon summers, your inability to resolve basic issues by simply talking to one another, and your utter obliviousness to flagrant homosexuality.

Here’s a better description of this book:

In The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst affectionately laughs up his sleeve at the “subtleties” of the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster, beginning in 1913 when sixteen-year-old Daphne gets her very first crush on a gay dude. Named Cecil. He’s her brother George’s “friend” from “Cambridge”.

Okay, they actually do go to Cambridge.

Hollinghurst shamelessly uses symbolism and in-jokes to nudge the modern reader into chuckling at Daphne’s näiveté. When George and Cecil go out for a post-prandial walk, she follows them to see if she can get a bit of a chat in with Cecil. She can’t see because it’s dark, but she follows the smell of their cigars:

“Oh, are you here?” she said, and she pushed on, under the low branches that screened the hammock on that side. “I’ve left my books out here, in the dew… Isn’t Cecil with you?” she said artfully.

“Ha…!” said Cecil softly, just above her, and pulled on his cigar…

“Are you both in the hammock! …Well, I must say…”

Guys, they are in the hammock together smoking cigars.

“Oh, I thought it was Cecil’s cigar,” she said simply… “So it was,” said George, in his most paradoxical tone. “I’m smoking Cecil’s cigar, too.”

“Oh really…” said Daphne, not knowing what tone to give the words.

Later, Cecil will joke-make-out with her (he’s kind of a jerk) and she will feel what she believes is “the hard shape of the cigar case in his trouser pocket thrusting against her stomach.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not in this book.

This poor girl will marry Cecil’s brother after Cecil dies in WWI and then go on to marry two other gay dudes.

Before he dies, Cecil writes a crappy poem supposedly for her, but actually for George. The poem becomes famous after the war, when people are so nostalgic for pre-war times they’ll seize on any sappy shit to help them remember Ye Olden Times. Kind of like people who put fake Marilyn Monroe quotes on their Facebook profiles because they relate to how beautiful and tragic she was, because they, too, are too beautiful for this world only no one, not even we can understand that.

As the book jumps forward in time decade by decade, we see characters in more recent times try to puzzle out the mystery of Cecil’s personality, and we get an overview of the advance of gay rights and acceptance in England.* And we have the luxury of laughing at how dumb people used to be and also the discomfort of knowing that one day people will laugh at us for how dumb we are.

 

 

 

 

 

*Okay, this stuff is actually pretty interesting. And Alan Hollinghurst is a really good writer and you should read the book. But not because of the stuff it says on the back cover.