Eventide, by Therese Bohman

Eventide cover I really loved Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. It’s a novel about the academic world, which always appeals to me, and it’s a smart look at life for a newly-single woman in her forties who is struggling to figure out what she wants out of life and what meaning the world has for her. It’s a dark novel — another thing I like — and a philosophical one and one that takes a close look at the experience of being a middle-aged woman.

Karolina is the protagonist; she’s in her early forties, newly single, and struggling to find equilibrium in her new life. She’s an art professor in Stockholm with a successful career, although currently her research isn’t going anywhere. Meeting a new graduate student promises to change that, though, as he has found new material about a turn-of-the-20th-century female artist that could shake up her research field. What happens with this research project and with Karolina’s relationships among the academics, critics, and artists who make up the Stockholm intellectual world form the basis of the rest of the plot.

Karolina spends a lot of time in this novel thinking — about work, relationships, sex, art, aging, feminism — and while her mind is a complicated, fraught place, I enjoyed following her thoughts. She is struggling and depressed, but still clear-sighted and sharp. I also like reading about women my age, even though she and I have very different lives — women who are figuring out what they think about their careers, their lives, their bodies, their relationships, at the time when fertility wanes, which can bring up complicated feelings, and one’s career is (often) established, which can also bring up complicated feelings. Karolina is a difficult, prickly character, and I liked her for exactly that reason.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Recent Reading, 4/14/2018

Recently I finished two books that I loved: Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. About the Smith essay collection, I read every word, and liked every piece, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the whole thing if you’re not inspired to. It’s a pretty hefty book and some of the subjects she writes about might not interest every reader. But there are so many pieces that any reader will like. She’s such a fun writer: her sentences are so smart and so elegant that it’s a joy to watch her mind work. She moves among very different subjects within the same essay with ease and it’s a pleasure to let yourself be surprised by where she takes you.

Eloquent Rage has a lot of memoiristic material, but it’s really more of a personal exploration of feminism, and Black feminism in particular. She writes about her experiences as a Black girl and woman and at the same time looks at the experiences of Black girls and women more broadly: experiences in schools, in the church, in love, in friendship, in the working world, in pop culture. Her tone is informal and funny:

Eloquent Rage opening

She brings the meaning of “intersectionality” to life: she writes about the struggles of women generally, and about those of Black men, and about those of Black women (as well as those of other groups) and shows how they are all different, all inflected by sexism and racism in different ways. She has some challenging words for men generally, and for Black men, and for white women, and also for Black women. It strikes me that any reader might find this book uncomfortable at some point, as I did, because she really spares no one. But this book, at heart, is a love letter to Black women. Her definition of Black feminism is about keeping a love for Black women front and center. She wants justice for everyone, and works with people of all types to make that happen, but her guiding principle is making the lives of Black women freer, safer, and better.

The book is an easy read in a lot of ways: it’s accessible and engaging, consistently surprising and fresh, informed by philosophy and theory, but always in an approachable, clear way. It’s a difficult book in other ways, though: Cooper has some harsh truths to share about the sexism and racism particular to the U.S. and how those two “isms” combine to make the lives of Black women much more difficult than they should be. I think this is a book every American would benefit from reading.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

I didn’t mention this in my last post, but I’ve also been listening to, and recently finished, Anne Helen Peterson’s book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. I decided to listen to this because it’s the first pick for Book Riot’s “Persist,” a feminist book club. The book club is run on Instagram Live (a new thing for me, and one I will never use for myself), and the way it works is a Book Riot staff member talks about the book live and people can send in comments, so there’s some back and forth with the audience. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that’s been fun to follow along.

Too Fat Too Slutty cover As for the book itself, it’s the kind of nonfiction that I approach with trepidation, not because of the topic, but because its ten chapters cover one “unruly” woman each, and I often find that format boring. It’s hard to make the give-the-theory-in-the-intro-and-apply-it-over-and-over-again-in-the-chapters format consistently fresh and interesting. Peterson does a pretty good job with this, though, mostly, I think, because each chapter has not only a different unruly woman to discuss (not interesting enough in and of itself), but it looks at a different type of unruliness in each chapter: too pregnant, too shrill, too queer, too fat, too slutty, too loud, etc., so there’s a wide variety of material.

Her definition of “unruly” is kind of a mess: the degree of unruliness in each chapter varies a lot, as does the degree of intentionality: some examples purposefully set out to break rules and cause trouble (Jennifer Weiner, Madonna) and others break rules just by existing (Caitlyn Jenner). All of her examples are celebrities, which is done purposefully in order to look at unruliness as it happens in the public eye, but are celebrities really the most interesting examples of unruliness available? It is interesting to look at how the celebrity status of these women limits their ability to be unruly — they need to follow SOME rules in order to remain popular — but I’m not sure they are the best sources to look at to study female unruliness in and of itself.

But there are a lot of interesting ideas packed into the chapters, and Peterson does a wonderful job of telling the women’s stories and also placing them into historical and intellectual contexts in a relatively short book with lively, entertaining writing. I particularly liked the chapters on Hillary Clinton (too shrill), Jennifer Weiner (too loud), and Lena Dunham (too naked). If you’re into audiobooks, Peterson reads the book herself and does a good job. The book was good company during my commute and laundry-folding sessions when I had some listening time to give it.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Recent Reading, 4/1/2018

Oh, it’s been over a year since I wrote here? Haha, I guess it has! Ah, well.

So, what am I reading? I just finished a novel in translation called In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein, to be published by Other Press this June (translated by John Cullen). Guelfenbein is a Chilean author and the book takes place in Chile and various places in Europe. It’s inspired by Clarice Lispector and is about a Lispector-like author who spends the novel in a hospital room, while three other characters who knew her in various ways tell their stories. It’s about writing and writerly relationships, about literary lineages, about the way the past bears down on the present, about the pressures the world places on the body. It’s labeled a literary thriller, although the pace is slower than that leads one to expect. But there are plot revelations along the way that kept me reading happily, and the ideas about the writing life and the creative process were engaging.

I’m also reading Feel Free, an essay collection by Zadie Smith, and it’s so good! Smith is such a master of the essay. I like her novels, but her essays are better: she’s so entertaining, and so smart. She brings together things you would not expect to be brought together, in classic essay style. I’m about halfway through. The essays have been about politics, libraries, art, film, aesthetics, and more. Many of them I had read before in various publications — The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books — but I’m happy to read them again. One of my favorites, “Some Notes on Attunement” starts with Joni Mitchell and moves to Wordsworth, Seneca, Kierkegaard, and a drive through Wales, all while never losing site of where it started. But the essay is really about artistic taste and how we change our minds about what we like. It’s really so good. Here’s a passage from another essay I loved, “Dance Lessons for Writers”:

Zadie Smith Feel Free passage

What’s next? I’m thinking of picking Brittney C. Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, but we’ll see what I’m in the mood for later.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Fiction

2016 in Reading: Part 1

I am currently in the middle of a fairly lengthy holiday journey across the country to visit with family, so my usual round-up of my year in reading is late and will be quick. But I want to crunch all the numbers as usual, so here we go!

  • Books read: 85.
  • Audiobooks: 6. I focused more on podcasts than audiobooks this year, which has been great, as I love podcasts … but I love audiobooks too. I wrote about this dilemma here.
  • eBooks: 23. This is almost twice last year’s number. I read many more e-galleys from Edelweiss this year, which explains the change.
  • From library: 9.
  • Fiction: 40. This is way down from last year! Last year my reading was 68% fiction, and this year it’s 47%. This change reflects my love of essays and memoirs and my desire to read and write about more of them. I’ll never stop reading novels, though.
  • Nonfiction: 42. Last year my nonfiction reading was 30%; this year it’s 47%.
  • Poetry: 3. One of these had some essays in it too, so I’m counting it in nonfiction as well.
  • Plays: 1.
  • Essay collections: 11. Five more than last year.
  • Biography/autobiography: 25. 12 more than last year.
  • Mysteries: 7
  • Graphic Novels: 1
  • Books in translation: 7. This is down by two from last year, which I’m not happy about.
  • Books by writers of color: 30. This is the same number as last year, but a slightly higher percentage.

Gender breakdown:

  • Women: 62
  • Men: 21
  • Collections with men and women: 2

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 57
  • British: 12
  • French: 2
  • Canadian: 2
  • Indian: 2
  • Nigerian: 2
  • One each by authors from Algeria, Australia, Chile, Ireland, Mexico, Malaysia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Year of publication:

  • 19th century: 2
  • First half of 20th century: 3
  • Second half of 20th century: 4
  • 2000-2009: 4
  • 2010-2016: 72

I’ll be back before too long with a list of my favorite books of the year. I hope your 2017 has started of well!

5 Comments

Filed under Books

Recent Reading: December 17th, 2016

I have one novel and two nonfiction books to report on this time. First the novel: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane. I’ve seen this described as auto-fiction, a term that … I guess makes sense? Autobiographical novel is better, but frankly I’m not that interested in its autobiographical origins. What’s interesting is that it’s a first-person account of struggling with blindness. The novel opens with the main character — Lina, of course — at a party, discovering that her eyes are filling with blood. She has known that this might happen and has had to be careful to try to keep it from happening, but it was inevitable that it would happen eventually. The rest of the novel is about trying to get by afterward — about learning to cope without sight and living with the hope that her eyes might get better but with the possibility of disappointment as well. It’s a fierce novel, about pain and anger and fear. It’s short, and I think that’s a good thing, because even though I liked the book quite a lot, it would be hard to read a work with such intensity for very long. I like fiction that gets deeply into a character’s mind, even when that mind is an uncomfortable place, and this book satisfies that desire perfectly.

Then there’s The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri, a very, very short book — an extended essay, really — on book covers. It’s a great follow-up to her book from earlier this year In Other Words, which was about learning to speak and write in Italian. That book was also about identity and how language and writing have shaped her, and The Clothing of Books picks up the same theme, just this time in relation to her feelings about book covers generally and the covers of her own books in particular. I like Lahiri’s nonfiction style — translated from the Italian in both cases — which is very simple and straightforward while managing to make intriguing arguments and to suggest depth of thought. Both books are great for people how like to think about language and writing and books as physical objects.

Finally, there’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by the playwright Sarah Ruhl. The essays here are 1-2 pages usually, and most of them are about the theater — Ruhl’s thoughts about her own plays and her experiences working in the theater and also more theoretical ideas about how drama works and what plays can and should do. Ruhl starts with a description of trying to write with small children to explain the genesis of the book: each essay is an idea told briefly and simply, an idea that perhaps she could have expanded if she had had more time. But they feel complete already, or at least most of them do, and I enjoyed them for their suggestiveness and their air of exploration: they are essays in the sense of “attempts” or “assays” into a thought instead of fully-developed and defended arguments, and they are enjoyable in their brevity and incompleteness. This book is a must-read for anybody who has thought about the theater a lot, and interesting for those who haven’t but wouldn’t mind giving it a try.

1 Comment

Filed under Books

Recent Reading, Escapist and non

I’ve been getting back into regular reading in the last couple weeks, but I’ve still been in the mood for books that feel escapist. Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam was perfect — so enjoyable and absorbing and fun — and after I finished it, I wanted something similar. I asked around a bit, looking for a book that would let me get lost in the world it creates, and settled on Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. It, also, was perfect. It’s another “rich people problems” book, which for some reason I find comforting, probably because while there are problems, they aren’t all that serious and they don’t make me feel bad and worried. Seating Arrangements takes place on an island in New England and tells the story of a wedding weekend. There’s the bride and her family — the novel’s main characters — as well as the groom and his family and everyone’s friends. The novel is full of unlikeable characters, which I just love; the worst one is Winn, the bride’s father, who is so horribly self-involved and lacking in self-awareness, and Shipstead captures him so well, it’s just delicious. His biggest worry in life is not getting invited into the country club he so desperately wants to be a member of. Shipstead makes us feel the absurdity of his character, but she also makes us sympathize with him, just a little bit, and I loved that.

As for my non-escapist reading, I finished Sady Doyle’s book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why. This book looks at the phenomenon of the famous woman who completely and utterly loses it, who turns herself into a very public disaster. Think Britney Spears. But also think Mary Wollstonecraft, Billie Holiday, and Sylvia Plath. Doyle looks at the modern meaning of the “trainwreck,” but also at historical examples to show that this is not just a modern phenomenon. Doyle is great at explaining the cultural meaning of this figure — how it developed, the meaning we find in it, and why we just can’t look away. Doyle’s writing is smart and also lively and fun. It’s a disturbing topic, and Doyle offers some useful ways to think about it.

4 Comments

Filed under Books