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When a comfort read is discomforting: Mary Green by Melanie Kerr

My latest review for Vue Weekly is up, and I need to write a different kind of disclaimer:

This review is not sponsored and I paid full retail for the book. The author did, however, make me sourdough waffles with homemade preserves. I swear it didn’t affect this review, even though they were the best damn waffles I’ve ever had.

With that in mind, here follows my director’s cut review. Or, click here for the shorter version that appears in Vue.

It’s worth noting the unintentionally hilarious typo in the print headline. Not sure whose fans are rejoicing; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s?

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Photo by Melanie Kerr

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A #readwomen of one’s own

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When you realize the introduction to your novel was written by a man and you’re not sure if that’s #readwomen approved (Woman Reading by Robert James Gordon, late 19th century)

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about my 2016 reading rules– only read books I own for the first three months, only read 35 books total –  but didn’t mention the most significant restriction on my reading: In 2016 I only read books by authors who identify as women*.

In that post I referenced LitHub’s “Reader’s Manifesto“, in which a male literary editor sought head pats for deigning to read (certain, hip) women and minorities. My decision to take on a #readwomen challenge without telling anyone was a direct response to it. Is reading women, or “reading diversely” (i.e. not reading white men) still worthwhile if nobody knows you’re doing it?

I may not have told anyone, but between this blog, YouTube, Instagram, and Litsy, my reading habits aren’t exactly a secret. I wondered, vainly, if anyone would notice. Could I host a month-long Franzen Fest with out actually reading Franzen? Could I do a big, chunky classic readalong and not pick a dead white guy?  Yes. Easily. Turns out, no one really cares what you’re reading (unless they stand to make money off it, probably).

I also wondered if I would react like other #readwomen-ers? Would I have a better year of reading? Would I learn something about myself? Be a more discerning reader? Renew my commitment to feminism? Would I vow to never go back, and read mostly or only women from now on?

I went in cynical. If you read my blog, you know I’m dubious of reading challenges. Reading women, in particular, means subscribing to a gender binary, and assigning genders to authors, which can be dicey. Yes, I included trans and queer authors, but is that enough? Really, it’s more #dontreadmen than #readwomen. That doesn’t sound as good, does it?

So, my conclusion after a year of reading women: it was fine. I read some great books, and some not-great books. I read some new-to-me authors that I’ll never read again, and some that I’ll eventually read in their entirety. I didn’t come to any grand realizations. I’m still a feminist, but still struggle with hashtag #feminism. I still think “reading diversely” is often more about virtue signalling than actual commitment to diversity.

I did notice a few things. They just didn’t have much to do with what I was (or wasn’t) reading.

  1. Maybe it’s not books we should be worried about: Reading women made me notice gender imbalances in other arts and media, particularly music. I have a 25 minute commute, and can flip between four rock radio stations (3 local + CBC) and not hear a single woman’s voice, which I’d never noticed before. The indie music scene is super male dominated, too. My husband joined a band in late 2015, which means I’m going to local shows for the first time in many years. Between dozens of opening acts and battles of the band entries, in 2016 I saw a total of one band with a (single) female musician.
  2. Or at least, not fiction we should be worried about. I delved into some work-related reading this year, and found myself in the business section of my local Coles. If you wanna #readwomen but don’t want to #leanin with Sheryl Sandberg, you’re pretty much out of luck. I’m also into productivity lately (ask me about my #bujo!), and you’d think that since women are so famously into multitasking and having it all, there’d be plenty of #readwomen books to choose from, but you’d be wrong.

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    Coles City Centre, Edmonton, circa September 2016. Spot the single woman in this display of “Essential Business Books”!

  3. Maybe I should worry about myself. It’s easy (and satisfying!) to bitch about how traditional media and publishing is still male dominated, but what about the media that I curate for myself? In 2016 I started listening to podcasts, and really got into Booktube. Of the 21 literary podcasts I’m subscribed to, 11 have at least one woman host, and about three quarters of the literary YouTube channels I subscribe to are hosted by women. Sounds pretty great, right? What you have to realize is that literary podcasts and Booktube, like book blogs, are super female dominated. The fact that I’m not subscribed to 90% women means I’m skewing things. And I don’t have stats on this, but I know that the small fraction of those subscriptions that actually get watched or listened to are even more skewed towards men. Sometimes for superficial reasons – a soothing voice is an absolute must and I cannot abide vocal fry or uptalk, and yes I know it’s problematic for me to say so – but there might be more to it and I’ve not figured it out yet.

Where to go from here? I considered reading men for a year, or, at least the first 35 books of the year, to even things out. I also considered only reading books by people of colour for a year. I don’t think I’ll do either. I was worried that my year of reading women would become a year of reading white women, but it didn’t, so I trust myself to read broadly without making it a numbers game. I’ve got some other plans in mind that have less to do with who the author is and more to do with who I am as a reader. Less “read women” and more “woman reading”, you could say. More on that soon!

*I cheated by reading The Short Story Advent Calendar, which included male authors. It’s a tradition!

The Best Kind of CanLit

I guest hosted on CanLit podcast Write Reads earlier this month and we talked about Zoe Whittall’s Giller shortlisted The Best Kind Of People. We recorded on Giller Prize eve, and I said I didn’t think it should win, but I did think it would be a contender on Canada Reads.

I’ve felt bad about the podcast since, hence I haven’t shared it till now. I felt bad because it was a little snobby of me to say this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, doesn’t deserve a prize. I was a bit condescending. But I also felt bad for holding back on the discussion about rape culture. I walked into the recording thinking about Stephen Galloway, and brought him up as soon as we stopped recording. Now everyone’s talking about him and I have to wonder why I didn’t say something sooner. Continue reading

Why I want to be friends with Imbolo Mbue (and a review of her novel Behold the Dreamers)

I have no time for Booktubers who apologize for not knowing how to pronounce an author’s name – look that shit up! And so I did for Imbolo Mbue (Em-boo-wey), author of Behold the Dreamers,  and discovered that, in addition to having four letter names that are difficult to pronounce, we both worked in market research, and we both love Jonathan Franzen.

Today, I still work in market research, while Mbue is a famous novelist; and the closest I got to Franzen was being in the same room, while she shares an agent with him. But I’m not the jealous type. I totally think we could be friends.

I made friends with her novel and reviewed it here:

What author do you think you could be friends with?

It’s a CanLit Celebration

Facebook memories are good for one thing: reminding me that at this time last year, I’d already published a comprehensive post about Edmonton’s fall line up of literary festivals and events. This year, I’m attending just one event. (Insert excuses such as work, kids, and rockstar husband* here.) But it’s going to be a gooder.

Edmonton’s LitFest is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and so is the Canadian Literature Centre. As if that wasn’t enough to justify a party, the CLC also just released a book of essays, Ten Canadian Writers in Context, edited by friend-of-Reading in Bed Jason Purcell. This party just got upgraded to a soirée: the LitFest Ten-Ten Soirée and CLC Celebration to be exact.

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The book. Jason’s famous!

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Cecilia Read-Along Book I: It’s Frances (Miss Burney if you’re nasty)

Fair travelers, journey to the master post if thou art lost.

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Don’t call me Fanny

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Before we get into Book I, we must address a controversy: Is it Fanny Burney, or Frances? Does it matter? AS A FEMINIST, must I go with Frances? Rick at Read the North weighs in, backed up by Lives of the Novelists, which I must obtain: Continue reading

Cecilia Read-Along: #SquadGoals

Fair travelers, journey to the master post if thou art lost.

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I trust you’ve all started reading? If not, read on for some more information about where to find the book, and if you have, I’ve started a running list of characters, which is helpful with these big novels.

Editions

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My line-up: Kobo ebook, Oxford World’s Classics print, and Project Gutenberg html for easy searching

As I noted in the master post, it’s not easy to get your hands on Cecilia. And it’s only become more complicated since then. Let’s break down the options, and read-alongers, if you post this week, please show off your edition!

  • Print: While difficult to find in libraries and physical book stores, you can order online. I believe the Oxford World’s Classics edition I have is a good one; it reproduces the first edition and does not correct “eccentricities of punctuation, spelling, and grammar” which would take all the fun out of reading an 18th century novel. You can order straight from the source.
  • Ebook: Earlier, I recommended an ebook because they’re readily available. HOWEVER. My cheapie Harper Collins edition is decidedly not the same text as the first print edition; comparing to Oxford, the ebook is watered down: unnecessary capitalization removed, “everytime” becomes “every time,” and so on. Not sure if this is reproducing a later edition, or is just modernized, or what. Same deal with the Project Gutenberg edition.
  • Audio: There is a free audio version on LibriVox and perhaps I’m being snobby here but shouldn’t the narrator be British?

Cecilia’s Squad: Who we’ve met so far

This is only up to about Book I Chapter 7 as of this writing. For those of you just beginning, this may help you get your bearings.

  • Our Heroine: Cecilia Beverley: 21, orphan, heiress
  • Her guardians:
    • Mr. Harrell, husband of childhood friend, chosen simply so Cecilia can live with said friend.
    • Mr. Briggs, a business man who will provide “vigilant observance” of Cecilia’s fortune.
    • Mr. Delvile, ” a man of high birth and character” who will make sure Cecilia “should in nothing be injured” – i.e. remains a lady in the streets… and the sheets.
  • Her suitors:
    • Mr. Monckton: married to a 76-year-old crabby pants, he’s probably in his thirties or forties and was real annoyed when, just a few years after marrying this old lady for money, a 17-year-old heiress moved in next door. Timing is everything!
    • Mr. Arnott: brother of childhood friend Mrs. Harrell, lays it on pretty thick, likes that Cecilia “isn’t like the other girls,” gag me…
    • Sir Robert Floyer: Fashionable, friend of Mr. Harrell, weird horse obsession
  • Her friends
    • Mrs. Harrell: A childhood friend who moved to the big city some years ago. A very “city and country mouse” reunion so far.
    • Mr. Morrice: Her friend whether she wants him or not. This guy cracks me up.
  • Her frenemies
    • Miss Larolle: “flirting, communicative, restless, and familiar” she is the 18th century equivalent of a basic bitch.
    • Miss Leeson: “silent, scornful, languid, and affected,” definitely afflicted with resting bitch face.

Be you VOLUBLE or SUPERCILIOUS (see ch. 5) we’ll meet back here next Monday to discuss Book I.

Cecilia Read-Along: Start Reading!

 

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Happy Canada Day and Happy Cecilia Day! Have you started reading yet? To give you a jump start, I’ve found us a theme song. No, not that one.

“Oh Cecilia” is by Canadian band Born Ruffians, and features Toronto’s dancing crossing guard Kathleen Byers. Incidentally, Born Ruffians are in Edmonton playing two free shows at A Taste of Edmonton on Juy 29 and 30. Cecilia meet-up, perhaps?

Start reading and I’ll meet you back here on Monday!

Cecilia Read-Along: Summer Reading for People Who Don’t Like “Summer Reading”

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What do you look for in a summer read?

  • Almost 1000 pages?
  • Obscure 18th century author?
  • Difficult to find in print?

You are in the right place, friend. It’s the #SummerofCecilia and over the next ten weeks or so, we’re going to polish off this old-school English classic: Cecilia by Frances Burney.

Who?

Frances Burney was a totally important author who wrote four novels and a ton of letters and diaries, was wildly successful in her day, and then was ignored by critics for decades, but she’s back, baby. Thanks to feminist scholars and critics, including BookTube’s own RonLit, and the ladies of Hidden Histories podcast, she and her pre-Austen contemporaries are back in the public conscious.

Virginia Woolf also called her the mother of English fiction. NBD.

Why Cecilia?

I’ve been advised by several smart people to start with Evelina, a shorter and more accessible work, but damn it, sometimes you feel like reading a thousand page novel that wasn’t written by some bro-ish literary darling *cough City on Fire cough*

And the premise is fascinating! Cecilia is an heiress, but there’s a catch: any man she marries must take her name if he is to get access to her cash. Pretty out there for 1782.

Oh yeah, and a quote from Cecilia inspired the title of another book you might have heard of…

The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of pride and prejudice. … If to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.

What do I have to do?

Cecilia is made up of ten “books”, each of which is just under one hundred pages. I figure we read a book a week for the next ten weeks, which will take us through the summer, and then some.

If you’ve done my previous read-alongs, you know I’m pretty low key. This is an approximate schedule, and I’ll aim to post on Mondays, but you can read and post whenever you like, or just comment on my posts, or just snapchat with me, whatever. I might do a little Booktube too. You can bookmark this post and I’ll link it all up:

Usually this is where I bribe you

The nice thing about reading-along (read-alonging?) Dead White Dude classics is that there are ready-made prizes galore at Out of Print Tees. Burney swag? Not so much. So let me think on that a little. But suffice to say, anyone who even tries to participate in this is a summer-reading rock star in my books.

 

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This is the best I could find

Okay, where do I start

Now that you’re super excited about reading Cecilia, I have some bad news: it is not easy to get a physical copy of this book. My local library has nothing at all for Burney but an old biography, and it’s not on the shelves in any of the Chapters in town. I have the Oxford World Classics edition, which I got from The Book Depository, but not without a lengthy email exchange with customer service and almost two months of waiting. So I suggest you either order online (from somewhere reliable) or grab the ebook. I got a Harper Collins edition on my Kobo for 99 cents, and it works fine so far.

#SquadGoals: Here’s who’s signed up so far. Leave me a comment and join us!

If order of when they joined, this is #SummerofCecilia squad. If you’re in this list and want me to link to something else (or not) let me know

  1. My mom, who also goes by Mary and has the best tweets.
  2. Rainey
  3. CJ of ebookclassics who I will see in person during the read-along. I think we should go hat shopping in Cecilia’s honour.
  4. Emma of The Paperback Princess
  5. Kristine
  6. My sister Cait who is back at it again with her third read-along
  7. Vikzwrites of Weird Marginalia
  8. xkurwamacz
  9. Rick of Read the North (formerly Book-a-Week Project, and Canon Fodder, and Another Book Blog, and the original Book-a-Week Project… what’d I miss?)
  10. Lindy of Lindy Reads, best book club leader ever
  11. Sarah-Jane of Mercurial Vicissitudes
  12. Melanie Kerr, author of Follies Past and Mary Green
  13. Netta Johnston of Stonehouse Publishing, our resident Cecilia expert, meaning she’s actually read it before

Conspicuous Consumption #2: Podcasts

A feature in which I tell you about my book-related media consumption in a conspicuous manner.

I’ve been driving for about seven years now, and I’ve wasted so much time listening to the radio.

It took me more than five years to realize I could borrow audio books from the library. That was great and all, but I’m trying to cut back on reading this year, so rather than go back to terrible radio commercials, I finally figured out podcasts.

If you are thinking “what is there to figure out?” please remember I am old and that those audio books I listened to were on CD. Anyway, here’s what I needed:

  • Android app: Pocket Casts
  • Speaker  (Not affiliate, just a tip so you don’t have to go through two duds like I did)
  • Some good podcasts. See below.

The must listens

overdueOverdue: I love this concept: each week, one of the hosts reads a book that “you should have read by now” and explains it to the other. These guys are funny and take the books just seriously enough, which is to say, not terribly. I enjoy the episodes about books I’ve read more than those about books I haven’t, but, you can definitely still enjoy an episode without reading the book. That’s kind of the point.

Try this episode: Peter Pan

 

writereadsWritereads: Yes, I am a frequent guest host, but hear me out! CanLit is woefully under served in the literary podcast world, and Writeread’s monthly themes ensure there’s something for everybody. Writereads is a book club, so you really should read the book before listening to the podcast, but when I haven’t, I just listen to the first portion in which Kirt and Tania talk about their current reads and CanLit happenings.

Try this episode: The ones with me, but also a classic Tania-and-Kirt one like this one, about an L.M. Montgomery book that features filthy language (…the episode, not the book.)

 

cantlitCan’t Lit: Besides having the best name, Can’t Lit fills in a very specific niche by interviewing Canadian writers with a heavy focus on poets. No stuffy pretentiousness here, the interviews are offbeat and funny. No need to do the reading, though you’ll probably want to read all the author’s stuff afterward.

Try this episode: Michael Christie

 

 

backlistedBacklisted: British writers John Mitchinson and Andy Miller (also an excellent Twitter-er at @i_am_mill_i_am) resurrect a forgotten backlist title every two weeks and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read it, or heard of the author, or even intend to read it, the discussion is fascinating. I do hope to read one of the backlisted titles one day, and might start with this one:

Try this episode: Good Morning Midnight

 

hiddenhistoriesHidden Histories: This six-episode series is over, but it’s worth going back and listening. The topic at hand is “the great forgetting” of British female authors prior to Austen. I’d heard of Frances Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft, but I learned about Aphra Behn and Hester Thrale and many more. And the episodes are blessedly short.

Try this episode: Bluestocking culture: how did women become writers?

 

Honourable Mentions

  • Reading Envy: A recent episode features “book speed dating,” in which the host reads the first 50 pages of a bunch of books and decides which ones to continue and which to get rid of. Brilliant!
  • Lit Up: Interviews with totally important authors, like Nell Zink.
  • No Resemblance: This podcast hasn’t even put out an episode yet, but check out the intro: writers submit short stories, which will be read by the host. This one’s local and I’m excited to see what kind of stuff comes in.

So, do you like stuff? Specifically podcasts? Tell me which ones!