Jane Austen’s Emma: The Ultimate Insider

With another film adaptation coming soon, Jane Austen’s Emma is back in the cultural conversation. For JSTOR Daily, Erin Blakemore examines the popularity of the novel’s matchmaking protagonist, questioning whether she or another character, Jane Fairfax, is the true heroine. “Well-behaved and wary in public and witty in private, Austen chafed at societal obsessions with marriage, rank, and social status,” Blakemore writes. “That makes Emma a decided aberration. Unlike her other novels, which star put-upon women trying to navigate social systems that constrain them, Emma stars the ultimate insider, the kind of woman for whom those structures of hierarchy have been designed.”

A Forgotten Classic of the Harlem Renaissance

Almost 90 years after it was written, Romance in Marseille by Claude McKay is getting a chance to reach wider audiences thanks to Penguin Classics. The book’s plot seems contemporary by today’s standards, as it delves into issues of queerness and cultural displacement. For The New York Times, Talya Zax explore’s McKay’s place in the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the book’s long path to publication. “McKay belonged both to that subculture and to the movement’s mainstream. His 1928 novel Home to Harlem was the first American best seller by a black writer. But despite being seen as one of the Renaissance’s guiding lights, McKay — Jamaican, bisexual, a Marxist who grew disenchanted with communism before the rest of his cohort — also brought an outsider’s critical gaze to the movement.”

Dorothy Parker Loses Her Day Job

Known for her biting fiction, wry poetry, and time among New York City’s sharpest literary circle, Dorothy Parker wasn’t a stranger to controversy. For the Public Domain Review, Jonathan Goldman recounts the time Parker was fired from her post as theater critic for Vanity Fair for harsh reviews that upset the magazine’s advertisers. “[Editor Frank] Crowninshield met Parker at the Plaza and fired her from the job she had held for two years. Parker promptly ordered the most expensive dessert on the menu and left,” Goldman writes. “In the days that followed, Parker’s cronies who hung out in the Rose Room of the Algonquin Hotel made the firing and its fallout at Vanity Fair into a media scandal. Parker herself would never again hold a desk job or draw a regular salary, finding success instead as a freelance critic, author of brilliant and acclaimed verse, short fiction, essays, plays, and film scripts. The incident changed her career and stature, and its response helped forge the legend of what would eventually be called the Algonquin Round Table.”

Image credit: Library of Congress

Jericho Brown and the South

For Garden and Gun, poet Jericho Brown discusses how the push and pull of the South fuel his powerful work. The Louisiana-born writer looks back on his career, focusing on the ways the South repeatedly influences his poetry. “I’m interested in—what is that word? Posterity,” Brown says. “I’m almost ashamed to say it, but when I die, I want to die in the South and I want people to think of me, if anybody ever thinks of me, to think of me in contrast to and in context of this place. That’s important to me.”

Young Adult Fiction’s New Chapter

YA authors Tomi Adeyemi, Akwaeke Emezi, Elizabeth Acevedo, Angie Thomas, and Nic Stone joined forces for Elle to discuss the changing tides in young adult fiction, as well as the work that still needs to be done. The five authors also touched upon their influences and delved into their creative processes. “Once I got to the point where I began to get an understanding of myself and see that my skin was brown, and that I’m treated differently from others around me—and there wasn’t a reflection of that in the books that I read, I stopped,” Nic Stone says. “I see it as both an opportunity and a privilege to start readers. To have kids become readers because of something I’ve written is huge to me. And I do not take that for granted.”

Image credit: Stewart Butterfield

Dreaming with N.K. Jemisin

For N.K. Jemisin, dreams shape and drive the imaginary worlds that populate her works of speculative science fiction. For The New Yorker, she spoke to Raffi Khatchadourian about writing herself into the stories she wanted to read, as well as what the future holds for her as her latest book, The City We Became, hits shelves. “What seems to be happening, and I don’t know if I want to resist this, is an effort to push me into the mainstream,” Jemisin says. “I am wrestling with, Do I want to let people call me the next Atwood, or whatever? They always want you to be the next such-and-such. But I am still going to write what I am going to write.”

Kiley Reid on the Babysitter’s Dilemma

In her new book, Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid used her own experience as a babysitter to explore the transactional relationship that exists when caring for someone’s child. Reid spoke to Concepción de León at The New York Times about the clashes of race and class that drive the action in her novel. “I definitely started from wanting to explore the awkwardness of transactional relationships,” Reid says, “but also bigger themes of ownership, from the small petty ones like ‘Oh, well, she’s our sitter’ or ‘I knew him, so he’s mine,’ to the awkward history of black women raising white children in this country. That just comes flooding back, no matter whether you like it or not, in certain interactions.”

Willa Cather’s Lost Lady

At Jezebel, Jaime Fuller takes a closer look at one of Willa Cather’s lesser-known novels, A Lost Lady, whose film adaptation was a sore spot for the author. “Cather hated the second film so much that when she died in 1947, she codified that fury in her will,” Fuller writes. “Any adaptations of her work, ‘whether for the purpose of spoken stage presentation or otherwise, motion picture, radio broadcasting, television and rights of mechanical reproduction, whether by means now in existence or which may hereafter be discovered or perfected’ were forbidden. The copyright has worn out on A Lost Lady and it’s now in the public domain, which makes it a good time to pick up the book.”

A Year in Reading: Kate Gavino

At the time of writing this, I’ve read 83 books this year. Of those 83 books, 60 were audiobooks, 12 were e-books, and 14 were physical books. I read 45 works of fiction, 27 works of non-fiction and/or memoirs, seven YA books, and five graphic novels. Twenty-three and a half books I read this year involved a love affair ruining someone’s life. (The .5 comes from Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, in which the main character thankfully comes to her senses at the very end.)

I know all of these stats because I keep a
detailed spreadsheet of my reading habits. At first, I only recorded titles and
authors. Then I branched out to include genre and book format. In 2017 I
noticed I was reading a fair amount of books in which people were having
illicit affairs and ruining their lives, so I added a column for this arbitrary
category. I enjoy this nerdy, slightly narcissistic hobby because each time I
add a book to the spreadsheet, I take a moment to think about the stories that
have kept me company over the past year.

A partial screencap of the Spreadsheet

The Spreadsheet, however, doesn’t tell the whole story of my year in reading. Last winter I moved to Paris, France, from New York City, and along with the shift in culture, a major shift in my reading habits occurred as well. I used to work for the Brooklyn Public Library, a job that meant I took home stacks upon stacks of physical books every week. Now, I am a full-time freelancer. As an illustrator, I find myself obsessively listening to audiobooks while I ink and sketch. I’ve passed days engrossed while listening to books like Know My Name by Chanel Miller, A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams.

On weekday mornings, I am also (if I do say so myself) a sought-after dogwalker in the 6th arrondissement. Like illustrating, dog-walking is another ideal activity for audiobooks. I remember a particular memorable walk with Lola, the half-schnauzer, half-water dog, as we walked from the Tuileries to Gare de Lyon, listening to Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy.

I’ve listened to so many audiobooks this year that certain streets and train lines bring to mind a specific book. I cried on the RER A while listening to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The 95 bus makes me think of all the what-the-fuckery in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Walking up to Montmartre past Opera reminds me of the piercing stories in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina.

Next year I’ll probably add a column to keep track of the books I’ve been reading in French. This list is nonexistent so far, as I read French at a glacial pace. The three books I’m currently slogging through are Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and the first installment of the Hunger Games series.

My move to France also meant that I had to find a home for the sprawling library I had amassed over a decade in New York. I donated more than one thousand books, gave away hundreds, and stored a few dozen at my parents’ house in Houston. I moved to Paris with what I decided were my 10 favorite books (a stack that included Colette, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ann M. Martin, and Victor Hugo, among others.) But living in an apartment without books depresses me, and I’ve been trying to re-build my library here, despite the size constraints of a 30 square meter apartment.

I found myself regularly attending a bi-monthly book swap, where a group of women meet in a cafe to exchange books and talk about them. That was how I ended up acquiring and loving Nina Lacour’s We Are Okay and Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose. On occasional trips to the States, I’d come back with a suitcase full of books that included Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing, Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, and Bryan Washington’s Lot. These books, along with my “Original Ten,” formed the base of what I hope will someday become my sprawling library in France.

Despite no longer working at the Library, I borrow more books than ever before thanks to my Overdrive app and the online collections of the Brooklyn and Houston Public Libraries. I’ve always kept my e-reader on my bedside. In the hazy minutes before falling asleep, I read Juliet Escoria’s Juliet the Maniac, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick.

All of these books are dutifully recorded in the Spreadsheet, but I know the act of reading these books will most likely fade over time. I may always be able to recount the story of The Remains of the Day, but will I eventually forget that I read the novel on the hottest day in Paris history, when it got so scorching in my un-air-conditioned apartment that I had to check into a cheap hotel?

I’ll leave that question up to my own memory,
but there is one book in my 2019 spreadsheet that brings with it a reading
experience I never want to forget.

I took a quick trip to Amsterdam in September, my first time in the city. Rain drizzled, and my fingers were frozen. Earlier that day I had purchased a paperback copy of Anita Brookner’s Incidents on Rue Laugier in a used bookshop. To escape the cold, I went inside the American Book Center, a large, cozy bookstore in the middle of town. I found an armchair in the corner and proceeded to read the Anita Brookner from cover to cover in one sitting. When I finally looked up from the book, I was slightly disoriented, not completely remembering where I was. For the rest of the day, I thought about this all-encompassing experience, relieved that such a thing could still happen to me after decades of reading. That was the 61st book I read that year. 

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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George Eliot, Translator of Human Emotions

Before she was George Eliot, Mary Ann Evans translated Spinoza’s magnum opus, Ethics, while she was living in Berlin. For the first time in more than a century, a new edition of her translation will be made available, and for the Guardian, Alison Flood and Lindesay Irvine take a look at how the translation sheds new light on Eliot’s life. “She was basically immersed in this project for a couple of years just before she began writing fiction,” says Clare Carlisle, a reader in philosophy and theology at King’s College London. “It was the last thing she did before she wrote her stories and became George Eliot. A large part of Spinoza’s Ethics gives this insightful analysis of human emotion, and I think that’s something she obviously learned from, because she has this really amazing understanding of human emotions and how they work.”

Image credit: Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade