15 Books Wednesday, Sep 2 2009 

One of my friends from graduate school recently tagged me in a note on facebook. Here’s the prompt she answered (slightly corrected by me) and wanted her friends to complete:

Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it: fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you, first fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I’m interested in seeing what books my friends choose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your 15 picks, and tag people in the note-upper right hand side.)

I completed my list, but since I didn’t elaborate on why I chose the books I chose, I thought I would blog about them here. (These aren’t in any particular order.)

1. Faggots by Larry Kramer. A few years ago I started teaching this novel in my Lesbian and Gay Literature class. I wrote about one of those experiences here. I recently started rereading this novel just for fun. I love how Kramer takes a large cast of characters and uses them to critique the sexual mores of the 1970s. It’s a great and inadvertently tragic satire.

2. Becoming a Man by Paul Monette. I haven’t ever taught Becoming a Man, though I did teach Borrowed Time: A AIDS Memoir. Where Borrowed Time is unbelievably tragic, Becoming a Man is a hopeful autobiography about coming out and getting angry at the way gay people and especially people with HIV are treated in America. I read it as an undergraduate and loved it. It was integral to my own coming out process. I started rereading this book too earlier this year, but it got away from me as work piled up.

3. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. I used to think Agatha Christie was the greatest detective novelist ever until I read this novel by Sayers. I reread it a year ago and fell in love with it all over again. Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey are one of the great romantic couples of modern literature. This novel also makes great use of Oxford as a locale. I wrote about reading the LPW novels here.

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Reading Toni Morrison’s Sula Tuesday, Jul 28 2009 

I’ll be teaching Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula in my fall tutorial introducing freshman English majors to the study of English as a discipline. It’s been several years since I last read this novel, so when I flew down to Texas to visit friends and family this past weekend, I took it with me to read.

I had forgotten how powerful this novel is. Especially as I got near the end of the book, I kept thinking that it is too real, too truthful. It’s a book that hurts to read even while you can’t help but see how great a masterpiece it is. I kept thinking, “This is my life. How did Morrison write this book about two black women in Ohio when I was still a toddler in Indiana and somehow manage to make it about me?”

I started wondering about the question of great literature’s universality, the idea that great works of art surpass the particulars of their subject matter, author, date of composition, etc. to speak to the “human condition.” As an English professor, I’ve largely been skeptical of this concept, especially the idea that there is a universal “human condition” that literature can speak to.

Yet, somehow it seems like my story, a summation of what I was thinking as I read it this time. Not that I think I’m an early to mid-twentieth-century African American woman. Nor do I mean that I think Morrison’s particular message about the experiences of African Americans in the twentieth century in this novel should be subsumed into some narcissistic impulse on my part.

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Teaching E.M. Forster’s Maurice Sunday, Jan 18 2009 

Last week, I taught E. M. Forster’s Maurice for the first time in several years. The last (and only other) time I taught it, I didn’t think it went very well. This time I taught it in my Major English Authors class, which is focusing on British Lesbian and Gay writers. I think it went pretty well.

Forster wrote Maurice in 1913/14, but it wasn’t published until after his death in 1970. The novel relates the story of Maurice, a suburban, middle class English boy (and later man) who comes to understand that he prefers men to women. The novel is impossibly romantic, but it provides an interesting glimpse of Forster’s ideas of the origins and experiences of homosexuality.

Maurice holds a special place in my life. It is literally the novel (and film adaptation) that helped me come out. I was “struggling” with my sexuality when I happened upon the movie version of the novel on one of the cable movie channels (my dad worked for a cable company, so we had all of the pay channels). The first time I stumbled across it, I only saw one scene, one in which Clive, played by Hugh Grant, and Maurice, played by James Wilby, lay on a bed together. Maybe my parents were around or something, but I quickly turned the channel. I then looked up what movie it was in the guidebook and found out when it was playing again. I often stayed up late at night after everyone else had gone to bed watching movies. Fortunately, Maurice was playing late one night a few days later. I found a copy of the novel and read it too (though I can’t remember if I read the novel before seeing the movie or vice versa.)

The first scene I saw is about 5:40 into this clip:

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Jane Fairfax: A Review Friday, Nov 28 2008 

I love reading rewrites of Jane Austen novels. The best of them manage to capture the spirit and time of Austen’s works while bringing something new and fresh to the story. These works are very much like a variation on a well-known theme.

Today I finished reading Jane Fairfax: The Secret Story of the Second Heroine in Jane Austen’s Emma by Joan Aiken. The novel retells some of the events of Emma from the point of view of Jane Fairfax, the young woman who competes with Austen’s heroine for the affections of Frank Churchill.

In Austen’s novel, the reserved and somewhat cold Jane is little more than a foil for Emma. When Emma briefly flirts with Churchill, Jane is the woman who becomes the subject of Emma’s unkind speculations.

In Aiken’s novel, Jane is the orphaned daughter of a military men who is taken in by Colonel Campbell in return for her father’s good deed of saving his life. While Colonel Campbell does his best for Jane, she is nevertheless destined to become a governess and earn her keep, unless she can manage to find a husband for herself before the Campbell’s daughter and Jane’s best friend, Rachel, finds one. Jane and Rachel grow up together; when they fall in love with the same man, Jane must choose between making herself unhappy by giving up the man she loves or making her friend unhappy by marrying him.

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Twilight: A Review Tuesday, Nov 25 2008 

Last week, I read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the first novel in her series about star-crossed lovers Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. Then, PJ and I went to see the movie last night. Here’s the trailer:

While I can’t say that the novel is a masterpiece or that the movie is the best one I’ve seen this year, I enjoyed both of them more than I thought I would.

Like everyone else, I’ve felt bombarded by Twilight advertisements recently. I had heard about the books for the past couple of years, but I wasn’t particularly interested in reading the novel. That changed after I read the first three Sookie novels by Charlaine Harris. I needed a break from plowing through those novels, and one of my friends mentioned that she was reading Twilight, so I decided to give it a try.

As everyone probably already knows, Twilight follows Bella Swan as she moves to Forks, a small town in Washington. Soon after enrolling in Forks High School, Bella becomes fascinated with the modelesque Edward, who seems to take an instant dislike to her. When Edward suddenly and miraculously saves Bella’s life, her crush becomes a quest to find out just who he really is. A little googling uncovers the truth (as usual): Edward is a vampire. The rest of the novel deals with the consequences of falling in love with the undead.

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Dead Until Dark: A Review Sunday, Oct 12 2008 

Today I finished reading Charlaine Harris‘s Dead Until Dark, the novel on which the HBO series True Blood is based. I love the series, so I thought that I would read the book. It turns out that I love the book too!

My experience with reading vampire fiction is rather limited. I think I’ve only read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a few Anne Rice novels, and Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories. I’ve been wanting to read some didn’t know what to start with. I’d also like to find some good gay vampire fiction, but I’m worried that it all just be too cheesy. What I like best about Dead Until Dark is that it’s dark, sexy, and fun without being cheesy (or at least when it is a little cheesy, it admits it!).

Dead Until Dark introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress in a small Louisiana town who happens to be able to hear other people’s thoughts. When a vampire named Bill walks into the bar in which she works, Sookie is immediately fascinated by him. In the world of Dead Until Dark, vampires have “come out of the coffin” and mingle openly among humans. This has been made possible by a Japanese drink of synthetic blood that keeps vampires alive without the need for human blood.

When Sookie saves Bill from being drained by two local dealers (vampire blood isĀ  an aphrodisiac and stimulant for humans), she and Bill embark on an unusual and sometimes difficult relationship. Making this relationship all the more complicated is the suspicion that Bill may be involved in the brutal murders of local women, each of whom have had sex with a vampire recently.

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Lord Peter Wimsey on Page and Screen Tuesday, Aug 12 2008 

This summer I’ve been reading Dorothy L. SayersLord Peter Wimsey novels. I had read a few of them years ago when I was in college, but I hadn’t really read very many of them. So, I started with the Lord Peter-Harriet Vane novels — Strong Poison (1930), Have His Carcase (1932), and Gaudy Night (1935) — before going back to the beginning of the Lord Peter novels,Whose Body? (1923). In addition to those novels, I’ve read Clouds of Witness (1926), Unnatural Death (1927), and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928). I’ve just started Five Red Herrings (1931), but I have to admit that I’m losing steam and may have to take a break from Sayers for a bit.

Sayers is one of the great writers for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. She started her literary career as a poet before World War I. After the war, she decided to try her hand at detective fiction. In all, she wrote ten Wimsey novels and two collections of short stories. She also composed a play that takes place during Lord Peter’s honeymoon with Harriet. After she discontinued her detective series, she wrote religious plays, translated Dante, and composed several nonfiction works.

Having now read the majority of her novels, I have to say that Sayers is the greatest detective writer I’ve ever read. When I was younger, I spent a summer reading Agatha Christie’s works and I’ve always considered myself a Christie devotee. In graduate school, I took up reading Patricia Cornwell‘s novels, the first few of which, at least, are excellent, scary reads. And of course there’s Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are unrivaled in the genre — or at least they were until Sayers came along.

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Master & Commander: A Review Friday, Jun 6 2008 

While PJ and I were in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I decided to start reading Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels, starting with Master & Commander, of course. We were browsing the shelves of Borders, and I decided to buy a copy.

I’d been thinking about at least starting this series since reading The Jane Austen Book Club, in which a character suggests that the club read O’Brian’s novels once they’ve finished Austen’s. (The other members don’t take him up on this, by the way.) The suggestion, however, was that at least most guys who like Austen’s novels would also like O’Brian’s. I had only ever thought of these works as adventure books, not a genre that I’m particularly interested in. Since I’ve needed a little break from reading novels that rewrite Austen’s fiction from different characters’ points of view — at least until Susan Kaye’s second Captain Wentworth novel comes out — and since I clearly enjoy late Georgian/regency fiction, I thought I’d give Master & Commander a try.

I’m glad I did, because I’ve really enjoyed reading it, but I’ll start with the most difficult part about reading it: the sea jargon. As an undergraduate history major, I took a course on the literature of the sea during my junior year. I loved it, and over the course of the class we become generally familiar with the requisite terminology — the difference between “sheets” and “sails,” for example. That’s all a distant memory, and I have to say that, while I didn’t mind the sea jargon, I ended up skipping over it mentally. As long as I got the drift of what was happening, which I always thought was fairly easy to do, I didn’t let the vocabulary get in my way. In a sense, it’s kind of like reading science fiction, where there is often lots of technical jargon that isn’t really important to the enjoyment of the work. Once you think of Master & Commander in these terms, I think it’s a great read, one that combines adventure with an interest in the social aspects of this sub-set of regency British society.

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Teaching Tristram Shandy (Again) Tuesday, May 13 2008 

For the past two weeks, I’ve been teaching Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy in my eighteenth-century Honors Tutorial class. This is the second time I’ve taught this novel; I also taught it last year in this class.

I’ve been very honest with my students. I taught Tristram last year just to make myself read it finally. I had twice been assigned to read it in graduate classes but had never been able to finish it.I decided to teach it this year so that I could see if I wanted to write about it in my current book project. I think it’s good to be upfront with them about my choices in the class.

I enjoyed reading and teaching it last year, but I’ve loved it this time through. Reading it a second time has opened it up in whole new ways. Now that I’m not reading just to get any handle on it, I can enjoy it and try to get into it as a scholar and critic.

My students have done a great job with this novel so far. We watched Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 adaptation of the novel yesterday, so some of them are writing reviews of it for this essays this week. To do so, they have to think about what they think the novel is really all about, what it’s doing. Then they can evaluate whether the movie captures that. So far, they’ve done a great job on both counts. I’ve been really impressed with their ability to analyze this incredibly difficult work. They’ve been game for it, which I guess is one of the perks of teaching in the HTC program.

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The Jane Austen Book Club: A Review Wednesday, Apr 23 2008 

Recently, Pj and I watched The Jane Austen Book Club, a film about a group of readers — five women and one guy — who meet once a month to discuss one of Jane Austen’s books. One month it’s Sense and Sensibility; the next it’s Persuasion and so on. The movie was directed by Robin Swicord, who also wrote the screenplay, and stars Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman, and Hugh Dancy. Here’s the trailer:

I don’t think the movie was a huge success or critically acclaimed, but I really liked it. I thought all of the actors were good and that the plot was endearing.

So, I asked a friend of mine to lend me her copy of the novel by Karen Joy Fowler so I could read it. I had started it a week or so ago, and I took it with me to visit PJ and finished it on my first night in Worcester. To state it bluntly, I loved the novel. It’s now one of my favorite novels, I think.

What I liked most about it is that the narrative is actually much more complicated than one might think a novel about people reading Jane Austen novels would be. It’s actually rather postmodern in its narrative form. The novel has a narrator, who appears to be one of the book club members, but we never know which one. One portion of the novel is told through a series of emails exchanged by a group of peripheral characters. And finally, the questions for book clubs at the end of the book are “written” by the characters themselves — they’re hilarious!

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