Every Book I’ve Read So Far This Year (2015 Edition), Part Two

My reading round-up for the second quarter of the year is a little late, of course. I’ve been busy reading other, newer books and writing some things that I hope to show you soon and watching television that I would be better of not watching. (The Crimson Field is really not very good, but it’s a British period drama, so.) Anyway, here are the five books that I managed not to put down between April and the end of June!

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The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

If you know anything about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” you probably know that the narrator – a woman suffering from postpartum depression – goes crazy. The story is very good. And weird and scary and ultimately, sad. It’s also very different from the other stories included in this collection, which are, for the most part, optimistic about women’s ability to overcome societal expectations in late nineteenth century America in order to, in a sense, have it all. (The other stories can be a little hokey, too, but that didn’t bother me so much.)  I wouldn’t say this was a read that I savored or relished by any means – I read it the few hours I had before we were supposed to discuss it at book club – but I did find it to be educational. It made me think about how different my life is from the American woman a century ago, but also how much it is the same.

Here’s my original post about The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Okay, so. I feel like I say this a lot so I don’t want you to think I’m exaggerating but…this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. (I think?) With Life After Life, Kate Atkinson transported me to another world so completely that I found myself thinking about it and only it during the rare moments I wasn’t reading. I finished the book in under 48 hours. I’m sure I thought about work – a little bit – when I was working, but otherwise I was pretty much just obsessing over Life After Life.

When the novel opens, it is 1910 and Ursula Todd has just been born to a wealthy family in England. Suddenly, she dies. And then she’s born again, with another chance at life. The novel continues like this, with Ursula living and dying and living again slightly altered versions of her life.

Even though I have loved reading Kate Atkinson in the past, I was initially put off by the premise of the book when my friend Katie first told me to read it last year. Katie, I will never ignore your recommendations for so long again.

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People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry

I chose this book for my book club to read in the midst of our national obsessions with Serial and The Jinx. I think all of us who read it were just as fascinated by the story of a young British woman who mysteriously disappeared in Tokyo in 1999. While I think that some parts of the book were overwritten, I found People Eat Darkness to be a dark and unexpected journey in the best possible way. I was especially interested in the explorations of hostess culture and the Japanese legal system, both of which play large roles in the book.

Here’s my original post discussing People Who Eat Darkness. 

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Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Every time I read a Dickens novel, it is a special experience. I have, since I was a young teenager, been working my way through his books ever so slowly. The last one I read was Bleak House, back in 2010. It took me six weeks and will probably ruin all other Dickens for me, because I find it hard to believe that he could write something better than that. Dombey and Son, the story of the rise and fall of a wealthy London shipping family, is no Bleak House. It’s not even close. But it is Dickens and if you enjoy reading him, then there’s a lot to like. (My personal favorite thing about this book really had nothing to do with the book at all. Rather, it was the appearance of the phrase “dank weed” at the end of an otherwise very boring chapter.)

Here’s my original post discussing Dombey and Son.

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The Group by Mary McCarthy

As soon as I finished it, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I know to read The Group. I wrote a gushing post about it a few weeks ago and am still a little high off of devouring it so quickly. I felt I’d been in sort of a reading rut before I picked it up. But more than satisfy my need to actively enjoy what I’m reading, The Group comforted me. The eight women who made up “the group” felt so familiar to me that reading about their post-collegiate lives in New York City felt like reading my own journal entries or having conversations with my closest friends. However, they were living during the 1930s. (Mary McCarthy, who graduated from Vassar in 1933 just like her characters, wrote the novel in the 1960s.) This book, like The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, made me consider how different – and how very much the same – the lives of American women (of a certain race and class) are today when compared with decades past. The Group was so much more real to me, though. The writing is modern and McCarthy didn’t labor like Gilman did to make a point about women’s potential in society. She simply told a story and left it up to us to see what we would see.

Here’s my original post on The Group.

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Friday Reads: Rich Girls

Friday Read: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “If I Were A Man,” a woman inhabits her husband’s body for an afternoon and uses her position to tell other men that women are just as smart, athletically talented, and employable as they are and as such, should not be judged for things like caring about fancy clothing or marrying the right person, because men have made it so that they have to do those things. Gilman, the author of oft-assigned short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), wrote frequently about women trapped by a patriarchal society. The heroines of her stories are emancipated by finding jobs, launching successful businesses, paying off their mortgages, falling in love with men who are interested in them rather than their domestic skills, and being rescued by cleverer women from the monotony of housewifery. Her writing can be heavy-handed, but her message is clear: women should be valued for who they are as people, rather than for their roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers. (Though if a woman is a natural caretaker and likes being that way, then it’s fine as long as she can make money off it, as one of her characters does when she starts a babysitting service.) Reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman now, over 100 years since she started publishing, I saw how little has changed in our society’s attitude toward women. I also recognized just how much has changed in that, as a woman (of a certain class and race) in the 21st century, I am able to work without question, to live on my own, to be as interested or disinterested in the domestic as I want to be. As a friend recently commented, it’s unlikely that we would be where we are now if women like Gilman hadn’t gotten angry and started writing or protesting. But it makes me sad when I think about how many women I know, myself included, feel far less entitled than their male counterparts, often without even realizing it.

Of the eight or so stories I read in the last week, I found “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be the standout. This isn’t surprising, as it’s Gilman’s most famous story. But what stuck with me was not the prose or her ability to create tension, but the fact that the story is not at all optimistic. The narrator, a woman who has been prescribed a rest cure while suffering from what we now know as postpartum depression, descends into a psychotic state as she imagines that the wallpaper in the room where she spends most of her time is moving. At the end of the story, she is not saved, neither by herself nor anyone else. She is mentally ill and beholden to her husband, who dismissed all of her prior warnings that she was not getting better. Where Gilman’s other stories seem like fantasies about women finding ways to have full lives outside of home and family, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is – in an extreme way – honest about how most women were dismissed by men and suffered as a result. In fact, Gilman herself famously had postpartum psychosis. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was born of that experience.

 

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What have I been reading otherwise? I liked this TNY piece on Chloe Sevigny at 40. She is, unsurprisingly, an all-time favorite of mine. (I was ecstatic to see her in the new Netflix series Bloodline, even though I thought her character was a little blah.) I also couldn’t help but read all about Lilly Pulitzer for Target. From the angry screeds on my Facebook timeline to coverage of disappointed Lilly fans to actual reviews of the Target line and the Lilly aesthetic itself, I reveled in the criticism of this brand that loomed large during my childhood and adolescence and that I myself have come to have a distaste for*. I found this Jezebel critique – ‘Wealth Accompanied by Rejection of Creativity’: Bye, Lilly Pulitzer – especially delicious. However, I’m still fascinated by – and not in a mocking way! in a very real way! – the whole Palm Beach-y, ladies of leisure lifestyle that Lilly is associated with. And for that reason, I also decided to revisit this 2003 Vanity Fair interview with Lilly Pulitzer herself. On a not unrelated note, here is a Town & Country piece on Dorrian’s Red Hand, the ultimate Upper East Side preppy bar. I’ve only been there maybe three times and have run into people from past lives on each of those trips, so their first point is at least definitely true. I’ve also been working my way through the current issue of The Paris Review, by which I mean the interviews with Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis, and Elena Ferrante. (What a boon to be able to read these three in the same issue!) I’m still “reading” Stoner and I think I might just give up soon? I’m going away for the weekend and I didn’t even bring it with me. Instead, I have Kate Bolick’s Spinster in my bag.

 

*Full disclosure: Growing up, my wardrobe featured, if not a lot of Lilly Pulitzer clothing, a not insignificant number of pieces. Also, I have worn a Lilly Pulitzer dress within the last year. (But! It’s really plain – navy blue, no pastels or cute animals or martini glasses – and my mom bought it for me for my college graduation six years ago and it somehow looks brand new and, I think, it fits my current, very un-Lilly aesthetic just fine.)