Middlemarch and Miscellany

The Novel Journal Giveaway

Congratulations to the four winners of my Novel Journal Giveaway. Denise will receive the Arthur Conan Doyle; Teresa will receive the Edgar Allan Poe; Virgine will receive the Oscar Wilde; and Jorie will receive the Henry David Thoreau! All winners have been contacted & have 72-hours to respond before I pick someone else. I’ll mail the journals out in the next couple of weeks (three of the four are international, so I can’t say how long they’ll take to reach you!) Stay tuned for future giveaways coming soon.

Books Read Since Last Update

Middlemarch by George Eliot: I saw someone on Goodreads refer to George Eliot as “Austen (Pride and Prejudice) on steroids,” and I think that’s both hilarious and apt. Middlemarch is concerned with a lot of the same issues as Pride and Prejudice; family and neighbors, courtship, romance, property and inheritance, and even politics (social politics as well as governmental). I tried to read this one many years ago and couldn’t get into it. I’ll admit that I feared this time would be the same. I really struggled for at least half of the book, which is quite the struggle considering this one is 800-pages long! The style felt too dense and the language too lofty. It just wasn’t suiting my mood. Something happened maybe two-thirds of the way in, though, where I found myself trying to make more time to read, and not just to be finished! (That was part of it, though, let’s be honest. It’s a long book.) Eliot is hilarious, though, and there’s really no one can turn a phrase the way she does. Despite some oddities, like really important life events happening entirely off the page only to be referred to nonchalantly within another scene (this happened quite a few times, and I found it so bizarre in a book of this length, where one would expect every detail to get its due treatment), and a whole host of characters it was difficult to care about, the read was worth it, in the end, and almost entirely because of how it ends. There’s something about Eliot and Thomas Hardy, that way. I don’t think if I had read this five years ago, or anytime before that, I would’ve appreciated the climax and resolution quite so much as I did now. There’s a philosophy here, which is at the core of the novel’s central character, Dorothea, to which I have become quite vested in recent years. It was, then, a delight to see it wrapped up in such a way that resonated with me intimately. Luckily, it also tied together the many diverse but interrelated plots. (This is definitely a country neighborhood; all business is everyone’s business & all stories are connected!) I gave this one a 5 on Goodreads because I couldn’t give it a 4.5. It’s worth the rounding up, though, despite the slog.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg: I loved this essentially Buddhist take on writing not just as a craft, but as a personal life practice. Goldberg tied writing (for writer’s) into every other aspect of daily life and the human outlook in general. There are also some great tips in here that I’ve started to use and will hopefully benefit from (one of which is shared in the Gregory Orr book below, which is to keep a personal notebook on craft). I gave this one a 5 out of 5 even though it didn’t have as much craft advice or writing prompt-type references as I’d hoped because the spirit of it was so enjoyable.

A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry by Gregory Orr: This is an excellent book on what Orr himself labels “craft and quest.” There are ample interesting writing prompts with examples of how they went and/or received in Orr’s own classrooms, but there are also numerous explorations of poetry from Orr’s unique perspective. He focuses entirely on lyric poetry, but the way he defines this and the range (time/type) he uses to explore the genre provides for really ample opportunity to work with a variety of tools and styles. I flagged almost every prompt he includes and have already practiced with one of them, though I hope to work on a number of others in coming weeks. Orr makes an excellent case for why a writer should keep his own small book or file of favorite poems and revisit it every year, cutting and adding, but always remaining highly particular. This is an adventure I will embark on soon. Solid 5 out of 5 for invention and instruction.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas: This trans, queer, Latinx young adult novel was just great. It’s definitely a fun one to read around Halloweentime, I think, since the entire plot unfolds over the few days leading up to, and including, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The story is infused with mystery, suspense, action, superb teenage drama elevated by fantasy (magic), and of course, a delightfully wicked little queer romance. The plot points are a tad predictable and some of the episodic conflict was repetitive, but it was still a beautiful, wild ride. I think, like Middlemarch, I gave this one a 5 but that’s really a 4.5+.

100 Poems by Seamus Heaney: The poems in this collection were such a joy to read. There’s something very inviting about Heaney’s style, even when the poems cover topics that are entirely external to my lived experience. They are gentle and warm, funny and thoughtful. I don’t know that I walked away from this one with any new favorite individual poems, but as a collection of his “best” works covering the entire span of his career, it’s a very good one. It’s just a very good collection, period. Instructive and simply enjoyable.

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen: This one is being hailed as a Best New Voices and Best Debut novel. It’s not hard to understand why. This is the story of a family (and community) of Vietnamese refugees who find themselves in New Orleans at the end of the American War. Told from three perspectives–a mother and two sons–this realistic historical fiction climaxes into a kind of magical realism as Hurricane Katrina strikes and the world becomes unfathomable. It even made former President Obama’s list of recommended reads for the summer. How about that!? I gave it a solid 4 out of 5.

Writing Updates

My latest poems are two of the best I think I’ve ever written. Maybe the best. It’s hard to judge one’s own work, though, and I’ve felt pretty darn sure about certain poems and flash pieces in the past, which are then completely uninteresting to anyone else. So, who knows? I’m happy to note that I do have a poem coming out this November at Broad River Review, and I’m continuing to revise and submit. I recently got a pretty tough rejection from a magazine I’ve been submitting to regularly for years, unsuccessfully. I felt pretty confident about this last submission, so I think it might just be time for me to move on from this publication. Perhaps we’re just not a good fit? Also, my latest DIYMFA column article is live: “Is There a Genre Best Suited to LGBTQ+ Stories? (And why is it Historical Fiction?)”

Austen in August

Unfortunately, this year’s reboot of Austen in August seems unlikely. I’ve only gotten one response to my call for guest posts and giveaways, and I personally am not inclined to write an entire month’s worth of content by myself (also, where’s the fun in that!?) So, I think at this point I’m still going to plan my re-read of Persuasion and invite anyone who wants to read along with me to do so. And of course, everyone is encouraged to continue to pursue their own Austen reading as well! I’ll plan three posts for August 1st, 15th, and 30th, for anyone who does want to engage with all things Austen-related next month. They’ll just be comment conversations.

Giveaway: Four Novel Journals

Hi Everyone!

I have a special giveaway for blog subscribers running from July 5th through July 12th.

As many of you know, I’m not just a reader but also a writer. Naturally, I’m obsessed with good journals and pens, but sometimes that means I get a little bit carried away. It’s alright, though, because YOU get to benefit from my madness and impulsivity!

Anyone who subscribes to this blog and enters the Rafflecopter giveaway is eligible to receive one of four Novel Journals (pictured above) from the Canterbury Classics series. The styles are: Arthur Conan Doyle; Edgar Allan Poe; Oscar Wilde; and Henry David Thoreau.

These journals aren’t just beautifully designed (I love the color schemes!) but the lines on each page are actually the complete text of the author’s work in tiny font. Each journal also has an elastic closing strap, a matching ribbon bookmark, colorized page edges, beautifully illustrated front and back interiors, and a pocket to hold notes or stickers, etc. They’re really quite delightful!

Here’s some more information on the series.

The Rules

-Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway using the email or WordPress account you use to subscribe to this blog.

-Follow my Twitter and Facebook accounts (linked on the Rafflecopter) for bonus entries.

-Tweet about the giveaway up to once per day (linked on the Rafflecopter) for bonus entries.

-One winner per journal; open internationally. I am not responsible for items lost in the mail and won’t re-send or replace any missing items.

-Winners will be contacted via email and will have 48-hours to reply with their shipping information. If there’s no response within 48-hours, I’ll select a new winner.

Enter The Rafflecopter!

The Return of Austen In August! (#AustenInAugustRBR) Call for Guest Posts and Giveaways

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Ta-Da! Austen In August is officially BACK at its home site, Roof Beam Reader!

Welcome to the sign-up post for AUSTEN IN AUGUST, an annual reading event celebrating one of literature’s greatest writers! This event was inspired by a Twitter conversation that took place nine years ago between three founders of The Classics Club. That means next year will be our tenth anniversary!

Call for Guest Posts & Giveaways: I am currently looking for people who would like to host/sponsor a giveaway or provide a guest post. If you’re interested in doing either (or both) of these, please fill out this form. One of the reasons this event is so great every year is because of the awesome content provided by our participants and partners – I know this year will be no different! Please submit your participation request by July 15th so that I have plenty of time for scheduling. I’ll be responding as your requests come in and will need all posts/giveaway information before July 31st.

So, why is Jane Austen so interesting? Pemberely explains: “Jane Austen is very resistant to being classified as part of a literary “school”, or being placed in any customarily-defined literary period — partly because none of the obvious available terms, “18th-century, “Romantic”, or “Victorian”, would appropriately describe her. Almost all of the major figures who were literarily active in the period 1800-1837, and who are currently deemed worthy of remembering (i.e. are “canonized”), fall into one of a few categories — either they launched their literary careers before 1800 (Burney, Edgeworth); or they were part of the Romantic movement (or were more or less strongly influenced by romanticism, or wrote in self-conscious reaction to romanticism); or they did most of their writing and publishing after 1837 (e.g. Dickens). Jane Austen is the conspicuous exception who does not fit into any of these categories.”

The Goal: To read as many of Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished) as you want or are able to, during the month of August. Biographies, audiobooks, spin-offs, and re-reads also count. I will post throughout the month on different subjects, as well as with my own thoughts on the Austen content I read. We will be offering giveaways, guest posts, and other shenanigans, all of which are meant to inspire a great, interactive event. If you are going to participate, you can read any of Jane Austen’s novels, a biography about her, or any contemporary re-imaginings (such as Austenland or The Jane Austen Book Club, for example). All posts will help you qualify for prizes, which I’ll explain in a later post!

If you want to sign-up to join us as a reader during the Austen in August, simply leave a comment stating such! Maybe include some of the books you hope to read. I will be hosting a read-along of Persuasion for anyone who would like to join me. I also plan to read Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. I’ve long argued that Austen was more politically aware than people allow; Kelly’s book has received some harsh criticism for suggesting as much. I’m looking forward to reading her arguments to see where we agree or disagree about Austen. I know, for example, we probably agree about the importance of Mansfield Park. 

Sign-ups are open throughout the month of July. If you sign-up after July 31st, you can still participate, but may not be eligible for some of the early giveaway prizes. To Share/Discuss on Twitter and Facebook, Use Hashatag #AustenInAugustRBR. Please also post the button somewhere on your blog (maybe in an announcement post or on your blog’s side-bar) so that we can spread the word, gather excitement, and encourage participation. The more of us reading Austen together, the better!

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Mostly History

“I like reading history, and actually most authors enjoy the research part because it is, after all, easier than writing.” Ken Follet

I’ve decided that I’d like to devote my reading time this summer to biography and history. In the last few years, I’ve read a lot of history, particularly “people’s history” or “revisionist” history—you know, those things that are typically left out of traditional education curricula in the United States.

I haven’t devoted specific time to it, though, except in mini-projects, such as Black History Month, etc. And I’ve read so few biographies in general that I began to think I had to change that, especially since there are so many people who interest me. I’ll be reading some literature this summer, too (novels, poetry), but for the most part, I’ve got biography and history on the agenda, and that’s certainly how the month of June turned out. Here’s where I’ve been:

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (5 out of 5)

This is the first biography by Isaacson that I’ve read. It has certainly encouraged me to read pretty much any others that he’s written. Fortunately, he’s written a bunch on people I’m actually interested in learning more about! He’s got a kind of collection known as “the genius collection” or something like that, which includes Leonardo Da Vinci (read this month, too), Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs. He’s also got another one called The Innovators that looks fascinating, and The Code Breaker, about Jennifer Doudna, also looks great. I found Isaacson a bit repetitive in this one, but it wasn’t so much as to be distracting or annoying. What struck me most about Einstein, through this biography, is how very similar he and I are in personality and politics (leaving aside the genius part, obviously). I knew a little about Einstein’s major achievements, of course, but there is so much more to know, and Isaacson tells the story of his life very well. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went out and purchased Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (4 out of 5)

Cover of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

We toss around this word, genius, until its definition is meaningless. I thought I knew Leonardo da Vinci. Don’t we all? We hear about him as children (in my case via The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, first, but never mind) and then throughout our lives. Most of us recognize that he was a true genius, in the sense that is actually meaningful. We’re awed by his art and inspired by his inventions. But it turns out, we knew nothing. I knew nothing. I had not a g-damn clue. I’m not sure I’ve ever finished a book, biography or otherwise, feeling so humbled. And a little bit enraged. What if Leonardo had published his papers? Who and where would we be now? A hundred years more advanced than we are? Two hundred? Goodness gracious! Isaacson’s tendency to be repetitive did get a bit distracting in this one, possibly because he does not arrange this biography in a straight chronology the way he did Einstein’s. Still, it was an edifying and exciting adventure and very much has me wanting to return to The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s biographical novel about Michelangelo.

A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski (4 out of 5)

I first read this one back in 2015 or so, while preparing/writing my doctoral dissertation. I’m certain I referenced it once or twice, too. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first text in the “revisionist history” series, and it’s a decent inaugural text for that project. I was and still am disappointed that Bronski ends the history at about 1990, despite the book having been published two decades after that. He explains his reasons for this, but it didn’t change my reaction. So much happened for Queer/LGBTQ+ people between 1990 and 2012, and I think it needed to be represented, too. Otherwise, though, the book is exactly what it says it will be, an illuminating and detailed history of queer people in the United States, from its founding to the AIDS crisis. Those new to LGBTQ+ history will learn a lot from reading this text, some of which will be surprising. We have always been here.  

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty (3 out of 5)

Cover of The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tray Daughetry

What a gift to witness Joan Didion grow, and grow up. She was always a great writer. She became a great person. I admire no one more than the person who can face the truth and then change because they’ve faced it. I wasn’t a big fan of the style, here, though I do understand the author had to write this without Didion’s cooperation. If you’ve read all of Didion’s work and seen her interviews, there’s not a whole lot to be gained. That said, the detail (which is fairly criticized as being overwhelming) and chronology, and the inclusion of stories happening/lives being lived in close proximity to Didion’s, while at first irritating (as overkill/unnecessary), eventually made a lot of sense. If you’re writing about a writer who is always looking for the threads, why not include the threads? I think we get closer to a truth that way. I’m not sure I can forgive the biographer for disillusioning me about Didion’s personality–oh, we’d have never been very good friends–but it’s safe to say she remains my favorite writer.

DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi (5 out of 5)

I have honestly never read anything like this. I’m not equipped to remark on it. I think I can say, though, that it is perfect for what it is. It’s inventive, powerful, and jarring. There’s visual poetry and traditional poetry, all of which tells and investigates a painful and disturbing period in American history. It challenges us to see and feel what happened, and to recognize that “we” were responsible for it. This is an incredible piece of work.

The Wrap-Up

So, that’s one history, three biographies, and one poetry collection (which is heavily steeped in history and biography). I’m also currently reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen. I might end up finishing one or both of these before June is out, but probably not in time to write anything about them, so if I decide to share some thoughts, they’ll likely come sometime in July.

Some Questions

  • Should I bring back Austen in August?
  • Should I redesign the blog, or does this theme work?
  • Should I bring back the Official TBR Pile Challenge for 2022?
  • Should I bring back any other events, or would you like to see something different (specific ideas?)
  • How are you!? What are you reading?

What’s So Great About Normal?: On Life After Lockdown

It’s the first of June, which means, according to our governor, the state is ready to be “back to normal.” In fact, we’ve had a slow return to normalcy over the last four-to-six weeks, with increasingly relaxed rules and restrictions in close relationship with the CDC’s guidance. So, in our state, the shock of an overnight change should be much less severe than it has been in other places. This is all good news, right? Returning to normal is something we should strive for, or at least that’s been the suggestion. But if you’re someone like me, this might not be as exciting as it sounds. Let me try to explain.

(Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

On February 6th, 1963, an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show titled “It May Look Like a Walnut*” aired for the first time.  The episode opens with Rob and Laura Petrie in bed, watching an episode of some Twilight Zone-esque show. It’s a kind of body-snatcher plot, where an alien who is determined to keep human beings from exploring space comes to earth and begins to slowly take over their bodies through an ingenious method of implanting bits of his own essence inside of walnuts, which are then shipped around the world and sold through local markets and grocers. When a person cracks open the walnut, he or she becomes, well, biologically possessed by the alien Kolak—really, becoming Kolak. The human beings lose their thumbs, which prevents them from being mechanically able, and they lose their imaginations, which prevents them from thinking creatively, from dreaming, and (to Rob-the-comedy-writer’s extreme horror) from having a sense of humor. Oh, the Kolaks also grow an extra set of eyes in the back of their heads so that they can literally see anything that’s going on around them at any time.

Now, the actual Van Dyke episode after that initial opening sequence, where Rob tries to scare Laura, begins with Rob waking up in the morning to all sorts of strange, walnut-flavored circumstances and coincidences. At first, he imagines Laura must be playing a practical joke on him, simple spousal payback for his keeping her up all night with scary stories and bad dreams. But soon enough, as his day progresses, that seems less and less likely. How could Laura have gotten millions of walnuts from the market so early in the morning, by herself, and gotten them all back to the house, planted in various places? How could she convince their young son to get in on the joke and not spoil it? When did she find time to call both of his coworkers and his boss to join in the fun, as they do, and to get walnuts to them, too!? It’s impossible. So, eventually, what Rob first believes to be a practical joke becomes more and more insidious. Is it a dream he can’t wake from? Or is Kolak real, and really taking over the world?

This episode is a perfect metaphor for social anxiety.

As we all clamor excitedly for the great reopening of the world, and the return to normalcy, there’s understandable joy and expectation. But for some of us, there’s a real sense of dread, too. Like Rob among the walnuts, some of us feel constantly on edge in social situations. We feel, indeed, that even our family members and closest friends are intimidating, a challenge to be around. In these settings, we stumble without thumbs. Our imaginations have been drained away. At work, we feel trapped by common conversations that, for us, are extremely uncomfortable. Everywhere we go, there are Kolaks all around, with their four eyes constantly watching our every move. Are we saying the right thing? Sitting the right way? Was that joke too crass? Too dull? Is our laugh too loud? Am I wearing the right clothes for this occasion? Just like Rob, the longer the social situation endures, the more heightened our anxiety and near-panic becomes; and all of this is when we’re among friends, family, and colleagues! The horror of ending up in a room with total strangers, where we’re sat next to someone we don’t know and are expected to make small talk? Well, that’s just like Kolak walking into our office unexpectedly and presenting himself, unabashedly and nonchalantly, as the alien among us (except, in our case, he’s not played by the brilliant Danny Thomas). How the hell do we respond to that?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Adam,” you’ll say, “you’re a teacher! How can you be anxious in social situations!?” Well, it’s true, I am surrounded by people in my normal working conditions, and I am in fact looking forward to getting back in the classroom with my students. But that’s different. For class, I am always prepared. I know exactly what topics need to be covered, how we’ll approach them, what questions are likely to be asked or need to be answered, who will be in the room and for how long. I am generally in control of those scenarios, even when things go unexpectedly, because ultimately that’s my class. This is not at all comparable to typical social situations where, at the drop of the hat, the topic of conversation can change, a new person can enter the room, or someone might decide it’s time to leave this one locale (where I’d just started to settle into the background!) for some new park, bar, or restaurant. There’s no preparing for that, and there’s nothing to do but try to blend in and put on that happy face.

So, as we reopen and return to “normal,” I’m left wondering, what’s so great about normal? For people like me, not much. It’s a challenge to get out there and participate in the social things—even if the idea of these reunions thrills me. I’m filled to burst with love for my friends and family, and I very much like the idea of being with them again. But the idea of something and the experience of it are not equivalent. Luckily, my husband, who experiences his own anxiety of a different kind, is extremely good in social situations. It comforts me to know that, if the time has come to recommence gatherings, social visits, and get-togethers of whatever type, then I’ll at least have someone with me who can talk to anyone about anything, for however long. He lets me off the hook. Bless him.

If you’re like me, a person who loves people but would much rather be by yourself, at home with your books, then I wish you well as we transition back to a daily life that was never easy for us to begin with. Be kind to yourself. Go slow. Breathe.

*Incidentally, this episode plays a prominent role in the recent Disney+/Marvel television series, WandaVision.

And a quick note on my reading in May: I posted some of my thoughts on my AAPI reads here, and a review of A.S. King’s Switch here. I also read Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Masque (a classic of Japanese gay fiction), and a re-read of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (a poetry collection that I found to be just as brilliant this time through, though I learned even more upon a second reading.) That’s a total of eight books read in May.