As a bookish only child who came of age in the ’90s, I got ideas about how I might become lovely—and as a result, I hoped, passionately loved—not from the style sites, beauty blogs, YouTube tutorials, Instagram videos, and Pinterest pages that are now ubiquitous, but from the novels and stories in which my nose was perpetually buried. My innate interest in beauty—spiritual, sartorial, skinwise, and otherwise—was stoked by 20th-century literature and the captivating female characters who populate it. Books I read between the spongy ages of 12 and 20 were especially potent. They inspired me to become a writer and invent fictional characters of my own, but I didn’t only long to write; I also longed to be written, like the heroines of these books—to be regarded with the kind of affection, interest, and attention to detail that infuses so many of the satisfying sentences their authors used to describe them. Inevitably, many of my choices and rituals concerning beauty and adornment, several of which persist, resulted from the images that bloomed in my imagination while I read.
In junior high, my hair—thanks to hormonal changes, no doubt—transformed of its own accord from fairly straight to extravagantly curly. I struggled to accept the sudden ringlets, which required an entirely new way of washing, combing, and styling. I also agonized over what I was sure was the near-fluorescent ruddiness of my cheeks; it betrayed, I thought, the awkward bashfulness with which I was often battling, and I tried to mask it with powder as soon as I was allowed to wear a bit of makeup. Then I met Ántonia Shimerda, the 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. She was a character whose vitality, spirit, and earthiness I admired. And she had curly hair. And red cheeks. Ántonia’s “curly and wild-looking” locks make an ideal if temporary dwelling for a grasshopper she brings home to show her father. She “carefully put the green insect in her hair,” Cather writes, “tying her big handkerchief down loosely over her curls…,” and her cheeks “had a glow of rich, dark color” that Cather likens to “red plums.” Because of Ántonia, who was a role model of mine due to the indomitable strength of her personality and warmth of her heart, I embraced my curls and put down the face powder.
Eschewing makeup, however, demands vigilant skin care, and I’m grateful for potions that lend the face a lit-up look. One of Leopold Bloom’s errands on the eventful day of June 16th in the first part of James Joyce’s Ulysses is to have the neighborhood chemist make up a batch of the face lotion favored by his lush wife, Molly. Bloom marvels at the quality of Molly’s skin, which he deems “so delicate, like white wax.” At the chemist’s, he recites most of the lotion’s ingredients—”Sweet almond oil and tincture of benzoin…and then orangeflower water…and white wax also”—so I’ve been able to concoct an approximation at home with supplies sourced from the local health food store. Playing apothecary is fun, and I share Bloom’s sentiment that “homely recipes are often the best: strawberries for the teeth: nettles and rainwater: oatmeal they say steeped in buttermilk. Skinfood.”
Of course fastidiousness is crucial to both inner and outer beauty, and the skin of one’s body must not be forgotten in the effort to maintain a luminous face. Following in the footprints of the ever-fresh Komako, the lonesome young woman living at a hot springs resort town in the mountains of Japan in Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, I take frequent baths. Komako always seems to be coming from or heading to the bath: “[T]he impression she gave was above all one of cleanliness,” Kawabata writes. “Every day she had a bath in the hot spring, famous for its lingering warmth.” While my own bathwater doesn’t spurt from a mineral-rich spring, it’s usually infused with what I hope are similarly healing salts, plus drops of pine oil to evoke the conifers of Kawabata’s icy landscape. Just as I imagine Komako does, I like to do plenty of scrubbing to detoxify and promote good circulation.
Nicole Diver, the charismatic blonde with a sad secret in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, also takes a bath before beginning a love affair that will shift the trajectory of her life. “She bathed and anointed herself and covered her body with a layer of powder, while her toes crunched another pile on a bath towel…She put on the first ankle-length day dress that she had owned for many years, and crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen.” This passage not only impressed upon me the degree to which literature can provoke an exquisite sensory experience, but also the importance of perfume application as an everyday ceremonial rite. Fitzgerald invented Chanel Sixteen—there never was such a thing—but the first fragrance I bought for myself was a Chanel, the softly shimmering eau de toilette version of No. 5. Then I caught it: the perfume bug, an ongoing fascination with odor as a kind of olfactory language that both makes and unearths memories. My obsession has not only inspired me to write a book’s worth of as-yet unpublished perfume essays, each one devoted to a different scent, but has also driven me quite happily from costly bottles of obscure niche fragrances to tiny vials of cheap but pleasing oils and everywhere in between. I don’t discriminate. I just want to smell like someone about whom stories could be written.
After bathing comes dressing. In D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, the cooler of the two titular women, Gudrun, is an artist blessed with an enviable sang-froid that remains unruffled even when she is catcalled by local miners—”What price the stockings?”—while stepping out in her signature boldly-colored tights. She has them in a kaleidoscopic array of shades and fabrics: “…grass-green stockings…pink silk stockings…woolen yellow stockings…” Because of Gudrun, I went through a brightly-tinted-tights phase, partly because of the aesthetic pleasure it gave me, and partly because I wanted some of her blithe attitude to seep into mine, though in actuality I was much more like her hypersensitive sister, Ursula, who dons no stockings of remarkable color but instead has practically got her heart sewn onto her sleeve.
Little finishing touches that complete a look come in many forms, including nail polish—an adornment about which I’ve always had mixed feelings. I sometimes put it on, but invariably remove it within hours. I love it on others the same way I love other people’s tattoos, but on me it feels somehow wrong, artificial. Maybe it makes me uneasy because I can’t help but associate it with Muriel, the shallow wife of the brilliant and sensitive seer, Seymour Glass, who figures in J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and other stories. When Muriel first appears, she is in the process of “putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.” Growing up, I—like his younger siblings Franny and Zooey—was heavily influenced by and devoted to Seymour, and it was clear the hopelessly mainstream Muriel just didn’t get him. “With her little lacquer brush…she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left—the wet—hand back and forth through the air.” This insouciant gesture seemed to embody all the spiritual poverty and bourgeois materialism of which I was sure Muriel was guilty.
Other finishing touches, however, feel the opposite of artificial, but rather like external reflections of one’s inner self. I’m never without my two little gold bracelets—one on each wrist. There is something about adorning my wrists—the gateways to my hands—in this way that makes sense. I like to write and make jewelry; my hands accomplish the tasks at the heart of my life. But I first got the idea to do this while reading my favorite of Jack Kerouac’s novels, the autobiographical chronicle of once-in-a-lifetime adolescent love, Maggie Cassidy. The book’s title character accessorizes similarly. “Tonight,” Kerouac writes of Maggie, “she is more beautiful than ever, she has…little bracelets on both wrists; hands crossed, sweet white fingers I eye with immortal longing to hold in mine…”
I may feel complete with the bracelets, but there’s also sometimes a vaguely nagging sense of unfinished business: like many women, my thoughts often return to my hair, as they did in junior high. I may maintain its natural coiled texture, but what about the color? It’s a question over which I’m lately mulling, especially now that I’ve spotted and plucked a number of silvery strands. So far, though, I’ve done nothing about it. In Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, witchy Eustacia Vye, fondly dubbed “Queen of Night” by Hardy, is a loner desperate for adventures beyond the bleak heath where she lives. She has inky hair—as dark as her eventual mood. “To see her hair,” Hardy writes, “was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.” The romantic portrait is partly why in the era of ombré, “sombre,” “tortoiseshell,” lowlights, “babylights,” and all the other enticing iterations of highlights, I continue to choose, sometimes uneasily, to let my locks remain their natural nearly-black hue.
Consequently, not too long ago, an author of short stories and novels thrilled the bookish girl in me when he whispered that my hair was “so dark a seagull would love to die in it.” Oil-dark was what he meant. His statement, too, was dark—humorous, singularly strange and sweet, a compliment only a writer could give. For a few moments, I felt a little like a woman inside a novel. He answered the longing I’d felt when I first fell under the spell of fascinating feminine figures bound between pages and rendered only with words. I was no longer exclusively the reader or the writer; sometimes, I would be the one who is written, the one who is read.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.
Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.
In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams — which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)
The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.
More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.
I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.
I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.
Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.
Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.
There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.
Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”
I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.
Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.
And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.
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