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Free literature dissertation idea for whoever wants it: A comparative analysis of contemporary women authors who re-tell classics. The textual pairings Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Goethe’s Faust and V.E. Scwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. It is a rich set of texts and stories, because Patchett and Schwab fully embrace the gender swap. Not only do the central characters of the story become women, the stories themselves are rooted in the needs and concerns of women. Kingsolver takes a different approach. She retains the gender of the central character, but repositions the story in contemporary Appalachia. Gender issues circulate throughout the story, but are secondary to issues of poverty and addiction.
Last year, I joined/helped form a book club for women academics at my work. There are relatively few of us, and it was an attempt to build and strengthen our connections. Generally, I’m a bit skeptical of book clubs, and stick most closely to my “Not a book club” reading discussions with my friend DJ Librarian. This one has gone very well, though. We’ve made it through the first round of everyone picking books and there was only one dud. Even the person who picked it was underwhelmed. Right now, it’s mostly fiction and pretty light. I listen to many of the books or try to get them on my kindle, but I miss having a tactile book when everyone else is paging through theirs. What I have learned from this experience is that the founder of the book club has excellent taste in reading material. Outside of bookclub, I’ve read several books she’s recommended and all have been great. She recommended Demon Copperhead to me and called it life changing. It wasn’t life changing for me, but Demon Copperhead is a really great book.(Discussion of the books larger trope ahead, but I’ll try to avoid real spoilers.)
It was the hardest book I’ve listened to in a long time. Normally, once an audio book hooks me, I plow right through it. I’ll listen 7-8 hours a day as I do chores around the house and take breaks to play mindless phone games or scroll through social media. A 20+ hour book will sometimes take me a week, sometimes just 3 or 4 days, depending on when I start it and how much I listen during the week. Demon Copperhead is a 21 hour listen that took me at least three weeks to finish. I had to take breaks. I had to skip one part, because I knew what was going to happen and could not witness it; and, the part I had to skip came well before the character descended into a opioid addiction that felt all too real and familiar.
In one of the lighter books I’m reading for book club and to recover after Demon Copperhead, a mother and daughter are talking about another person who lives in their building. The mother explains that the other woman, “…wasn’t always like that. She’s just … lonely.” The daughter says she has her husband, implying that the woman cannot be lonely with someone else around. The mother says, “There are many ways of being lonely, darling.” What makes Demon Copperhead so good and so difficult for me is that Kingsolver captures the all the complicated loneliness of opioid addiction. The loneliness of the addict. The loneliness of living with an addict. The loneliness that creeps into the families and communities surrounding addicts.
I didn’t entirely know about the addiction storyline in Demon Copperhead. Given what I knew of the book, I suspected there would be one, but I felt ready to face it. I did okay for the first two thirds of the book, and it wasn’t actually the addiction that made it so hard for me. It was the loneliness. She captured what it is like to be next to someone who just isn’t there. What it is like when the person you love, who once loved you, and who you think should be most able to see you clearly, no longer sees you. When the person you loved is only ever physically present, never fully participating in the life you’d tried to build together.
Hanif Abdurraqib has a simple, haunting, black and white sign in his house. The white frame surround a black backdrop, with white text that looks like those old building signs that allowed you to push in and pull out the letters to change the information. I know about this sign, because I follow him on Instagram and he occasionally posts pictures in front of it. The sign reads, “Yes, but my lonely is mine.” It is a Toni Morisson quotation. (Yes, that Morrison book’s crept up quite a few notches on my “To Be Read” list.) Six years out from my divorce, fully settling into my single life, I feel that quotation. My lonely is mine now and its made all the difference in the world.
Demon Copperhead was hard because it so vividly depicted what it is like when your lonely is not your own. It reminded me, and that reminder hurt like an old scar that’s been hit or re-opened. It isn’t a book that offers much escape from the world, but Demon Copperhead shines a light on some important aspects of the world that often go unseen.
Sometime last fall, in the space between knowing my life would change and that change beginning, I started to read Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Ouiser’s recommendations never steer me wrong. You can trust them as well. I savored this collection of essays. Reading for a few days in a row before turning to another book as the mood struck me, but always returning to dip back into the space and sound of the writing. Abdurraqib writes about a wide variety of music, by weaving his story into the experience of listing or attending a concert. He uses those stories to reveal the contemporary moment in a way that made me pay closer attention to the music filling my world. Everyone should buy the book, even if you only read “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America.”
There are so many tools that are made for my hands.
But the tide smashes all my best laid plans to sand.Neko Case – Night Still Comes
In the final pages of the book, Abdurraqib elegizes 2016. A year that many of us individually, and as a nation, struggled to survive. To think about what happened in the country in 2016, I have to carefully untangle each event – each death, each killing, each mass shooting – from the death of my marriage. For me, 2016 is an endless coordination, getting my ex-husband to help, alerting his family, talking with doctors, finding someone to care for the animals as I constantly drove from Bemidji to Fargo and back each Saturday from January – March, bringing him home, returning him to another hospital, and starting the cycle over. Navigating 2016 took every tool at my disposal, and, at every turn, each plan I made smashed against the reality that my marriage was over.
Abdurraqib’s elegy for 2016 takes a different approach. Describing his response to the horrific Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Abdurraqib recounts how the sounds of children riding their bikes reminds him that it is in the small moments of joy that we regain our strength to return to the fight.
And, as I think about 2016, I remember the phone calls. Long talks with friends and family full of tears and laughter. I remember the unexpected care packages. I remember the happy hours spent eating fried foods and deepening new friendships. I remember learning to accept the help offered. And, I realize how each of these moments renewed my strength. The cleansing tears shed with friends. The laughter at a macabe joke, because … what else can you do? The warmth brought by a smile and an invitation to lunch. The joy – large and small – made it possible for me to make it through the night I feared for my safety, for me to pick up the pieces as each plan failed, for me to know without a doubt when it was time to let go.
I do it for the joy it bringsAni DiFranco ~ Joyful Girl
‘Cause I’m a joyful girl
‘Cause the world owes me nothing
And we owe each other the world
Abdurraqib concludes, “Joy, in this way, can be a weapon–that which carries us forward when we have been beaten back for days, or moths, or years.” And I remember how beaten down I felt in the years leading up to 2016. How alone I felt trudging from one crisis to the next just trying desperately to hold it together, to make sure I could provide for my family. Yes, there were moments of joy in those years, friendships made, but I remember how my smile rarely reached my eyes, and my guard never fully came down. In 2016, joy became my weapon. It carried me forward each time an event beat me down. Joy also became the weapon of my recovery. It flooded my life in the fall of 2016: the house full of friends at the birthday party I threw for myself, the renewal of old friendships, the long mornings and afternoons on the deck, the comfort of the dogs and cat as we settled into our new normal. The joy in those moments, big and small, salving my wounds, healing me, and carrying me forward.
Periodically Ouiser sends me articles from Greensboro about things she know will interest me. One of the stories I’m nearly always happy to get an update about is update about Deborah Moy. Nearly always. I was not happy to hear that the man accused of her attack was release. Also, the updates written by Brian Clarey tend to get mixed reviews from me.
In 2009, shortly after the September 2008 attack, I wrote a piece for Shakesville, posted under the title “This Stuff Matters” about the media coverage of this case, and specifically Clarey’s treatment of it. You can find details of the case there. Yes, having a piece at Shakesville, feels as good as being a PhD now, instead of a PhD in Training as I called myself. Even if re-reading it today makes me want to edit it one more time.
Clarey’s updates receive mixed reviews from me, because on the one hand, as Ousier points out, he is the only one who still covers the story. At the same time the lens and tone of his coverage is always off. Like Clarey, I was drawn to this case, and am still haunted by it, because of a personal connection. The DH had worked with Moy, and remained friends/acquaintances with her. His profound dismay when he called to tell me about the incident, coupled with my own horror as I heard about it etched this story into me. Little did the DH and I know, when we heard of the mid-September attack on Moy, that I was also just three weeks away from our own life changing event.
As I’ve written about before, on October 4, 2008 I had a stroke. I spent the next three weeks in the hospital recovering. One of the effects of the stroke was that it took me a very long time to begin to accurately remember the days and weeks leading up to the event. I could remember my 35th birthday on September 2nd, mostly because I was sick with the flu/cold I unconsciously associate with the beginning of my stroke time. I could also remember the doctor’s visits when I complained about the pain in my neck, which I assumed was from coughing and working at the computer. Yep, I was wrong about that! The attack on Moy was one of the few, not health related, things I remember from that month, and I remembered it fairly quickly. There are really no facile comparisons to make between our recoveries, and I would insult her determination and fortitude trying to make one. Linked by one degree of separation and some traumatic associations, Deborah Moy and her story were simply never far from my mind.
At first, my outrage and anger at the way her story was represented (read the Shakesville article then dial up the outrage by about 1000) kept me seeking out stories and updates. Hoping beyond hope to find a story that acknowledged the horror of her attack and humanized her, I searched. These days, as happy as I am to find Clarey’s periodic updates, I’m still searching for an article that treats Deborah Moy as a human; one that doesn’t fall into sad gender traps, valorize the author’s story over her own, or verge on the cusp of inspiration porn.
This morning, when I received the article link from Ouiser, I started reading without looking at the by line. By the time I got to the following paragraphs, I scrolled back up to confirm that it was Clarey’s byline.
I didn’t really know Deb back then except as another face at the bar, but I identified with her as a member of my tribe: the floundering artists, service-industry lifers, lifestyle drinkers and other assorted stripes of the creative underclass. And it pissed me off that no one was doing anything about it. So of course, I did.
All I had to go on were several disconnected threads, snippets gleaned over nights at the bar and in after-hours apartments.
I had to stop. As I pointed out in detail in my piece for Shakesville, the problem with Clarey’s early reporting was precisely that he did not present Moy as “a part of [his] tribe.” The problem continues in this new piece. The piece verges on inspiration porn praising Moy’s spirit, perseverance, and determination, while valorizing her character and never really letting us get to know her.
You know what, if that is the story she wants told I’d be all for it, because it is inspirational to me. Clarey, however, never lets us forget that this story is really all about him, “… no one was doing anything about it. So of course, I did.” Later in the article, after discussing the police failure to solve the case, “I never thought I would solve this crime — and I have never come close — but even now, in preparing to write this story, I start picking at threads. Chasing ghosts.” Intentionally or not, in his updates Clarey re-writes the story to be one of his own heroic reporting. He follows the story no one else will; he maintains his connection. Moy becomes a part of his tribe, but only in her perseverance, which is also his own.
Look I get this, to a certain extent, is “Bart’s People” reporting, and that Clarey is following the tropes of the genre, which including inserting himself into the story. I’ve done a similar thing here explaining why I continue to follow this case. To me, however, this story has always been more. It’s a reflection of how we treat victims, and especially women, when telling their stories. I don’t want the tropes, the party girl, the girl who loves her dog and drinks her milk, the survivor who overcame. I want Deborah’s story told with respect for her as a human being. The one that is hard to tell because it is all those things and more. Clarey tries, but never quite gets there.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay had been lurking around my consciousness for a while – something I knew I should read, and should want to read, but couldn’t really find the energy for. On some level, I expected to see too much of myself called out in the book. I expected too much finger pointing about the ways I am not committed enough to the movement. As someone who tries her best to do the hard work, to look for the gaps in her thinking, to own and learn from her mistakes, and to make sure her feminism is intersectional and inclusive, I worried that Bad Feminism would be about the failings of White feminism, which as a a white woman always implicates me. I couldn’t face the thought of an entire book about how I’m doing it all wrong.
Then, I watched Roxane Gay’s TED talk. Then, I went home followed her on twitter, and put Bad Feminist on my Kindle to start reading. I saw myself in nearly every chapter, and not in the way I expected. Our experiences are fundamentally different, but the places of connection were so strong for me: the early resistance to feminism, the tension between the popular culture we consume and the intellectual values we hold, the commentary and critique of film, television, and current events I wished I’d written, the escape into books (Trixie Belden was my Sweet Valley High). By the time I got to “Typical First Year Professor,” I was in tears. This semester, man, I can’t even describe it, but if you really want to know what the last few months have been like read that chapter. I shot an email to Ouiser, who of course had already read the book, and her first response back was something about how that chapter made her think of me.
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to put Gay on the Feminist Pedestal she decries, nor do I mean to overwrite her stories with my own. It has, however, been far too long since I read a book that energized and moved me in the way this one did. Bad Feminist makes me think about the other aspects of myself where I feel a tension between who I am and what I think the requirements for that label are. In the introduction Gay says:
“I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain … interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”
Though I hadn’t labeled it as bad feminism, I also have made peace with the differences between mainstream feminism and my own feminist thought. Now I wonder, how else might it be freeing to accept a label of bad ____ in my life. What are the other ways I attempt to define myself, yet feel inadequate when I think about the expectations of the label?
I am a bad writer.
Though I don’t put “Writer” on my business cards, it is something that is central to what I do, and I’ve been struggling to claim it as an identity marker. I wrote a dissertation, but am mortified at the thought that anyone has read it. I write academic things, but I don’t ever send them in for publication. I supposedly write this blog, but am lucky to manage one post a month. Don’t tell anyone, but I even have the seeds of some fiction pieces floating around my computer in Scrivener files. I know the rules about writing everyday, about shitty first drafts, and about revision, but I don’t follow them consistently.
As I thought about my goals and set my theme for this year, much of my brainstorming had to do with the ways I needed to be a better writer. I need to submit that article to that journal. I need to write another article for that other journal. I need to post more frequently to this blog. I need to give those fiction seeds some attention to see what grows from them. But, what if all those things I need to do to become a better writer aren’t the goal. What if instead my goal is to embrace the way I am a bad writer? What could accepting that about myself free me from? What would it make me ready for?
If I remember correctly, when Under the Dome first came out I was working in a bookstore that no longer exists. I’ve never been a big enough King fan to pay for a hard copy of his books (even with employee discount), and as I waited for the soft cover of Under the Dome I got busy with grad school, and it just dropped off my radar. Recently, all the hype about the television show reminded me of the book. I had an audible credit available, so I decided to listen to the book before watching the tv show. From what I have heard, I don’t think I will be wasting my time with the tv show.
There is a new series of Law & Order: UK on BBC America right now. That, plus Hell on Wheels, have all my television time wrapped up. Any extra will be devoted to watching The Fall on Netflix. In short, since I no longer have to worry about a dissertation I now have brain space for good television, which limits my tolerance for bad television. Really, I haven’t watched a single episode of Rizzoli & Isles this season. Posts about each of those shows will probably follow, but this one is about a book.
My feelings about Under the Dome could be summed up like this … eh.
The book certainly isn’t King’s worst, but I wouldn’t rank it among his best either. Even if you limit your best of list to King’s epic door-stopper genre, Under the Dome is just there, not fantastic, but not bad enough to really complain about either. Once you meet all the characters, which takes a good portion of time, the rest of the story is fairly predictable.
In all fairness, however, I have to admit Under the Dome had a hard row to hoe. Because I didn’t really read it, I listened to it and, while the narrator was passable, he was no Frank Muller. Muller was the first audiobook narrator that made me pay attention to his name, and then go find other things he read. I can’t tell you any more which came first, my decision to listen to/read Stephen King & Peter Straub’s Black House, or my love of Mr. Muller’s voice. Muller’s voice and characterization are the standard by which I judge all other narrators, and while many get close, few make me want to listen and re-listen to books the way Muller does. At one time I actually owned Black House on cassette, and when I lost one, I used an Audible credit to download it. Even having paid for it twice, I have gotten more than my money’s worth from Muller’s recording. Seriously, go check out Muller’s narration list. I guarantee you will find something you like on there.
Black House is not such a great story that I want to listen to it over and over, it is that Muller makes me love the characters, makes me ignore the faults in the story. Under the Dome’s narrator is fine. He does an okay job, but he is never quite able to make me love the character’s enough to forgive the plot twists I could see coming/the canned story arcs/or King’s obligatory unnecessary sex scene. All of this is just my long way of repeating my initial review — Under the Dome, eh.
You know, what? As of 5:00pm today I was officially on vacation and if vacation isn’t a time for blogging, I don’t know what is. Of course there is more SERIOUS writing I should be doing just now, but I’ll get back to that in the morning. Tonight I am on vacation.
Because I am horribly behind on everything happening in the world it was only yesterday that I finished listening to The Hunger Games Trilogy. What did I think? Well, I tell you with the fair warning that there will probably be spoilers involved, because I don’t really believe there is anyone else left who hasn’t read these books. I’m intensely amused that I’ve seen nearly all the middle aged men on my bus reading these books. This isn’t really going to be a review, just a general discussion of the books. I’m also going to treat this as one large narrative without breaking it into books.
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