BOOK PERSON | Vol. 5
Radical feminist world-building with Octavia Butler, and an invitation to read more poetry.
Hello! My first book of the year was Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which I finished last night. My last book of 2020 was her debut novel, Homegoing, which was complex and heartbreaking but also, for my tastes, just a little gimmicky. (All of the books I read in 2020 are here.) Still, I loved it enough that I immediately requested her next novel. I thought Transcendent Kingdom was the better work, a story about faith and loneliness, and the labour of loving someone who is sick and can’t get better. My take was controversial with Veronica, who preferred Homegoing by a mile. If you’ve read both, I’m curious to know how you felt about them.
The first BOOK PERSON of 2021 is Carmen Mathes, PhD. On the night we met, almost 11 years ago now, I rode in the trunk of her teeny Smart Car to an under-the-sea themed party at Chapel Arts (RIP) to watch my future husband’s band play, which was a very auspicious beginning for our beautiful friendship. She is everyone’s favourite book club member because she always finds something sublimely interesting and insightful to say, even if we’re reading My Not-So Perfect Life that month. Carmen is a British Romanticist, but she could also give an inspiring lecture on the merits of Sophia Kinsella— or, as you will read below, a critical analysis on lean-in feminism in YA fiction.
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I’m from Calgary originally, and now I live at the midpoint between COVID life in Vancouver and moving to Regina for my new role as an Assistant Professor in the English Department of the University of Regina.
I’ve been striving to recognize myself too as a white settler whenever I’m asked to think about where I’m from and where I’m going. Calgary spans the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation of Alberta (Region 3) and all of those who live in Treaty 7 territory. My childhood home in the city’s South West is close to the Tsuut’ina Nation, and I remember as a child loving the sound of the name—Tsuut’ina.
Even in virtual Zoom life, I’ve begun situating myself in Regina by acknowledging that U of R is on Treaty 4 lands with a presence in Treaty 6. These are the traditional territories of the nêhiyawak, Anihšināpēk, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda, and the homeland of the Métis. In learning to say the names, I’m starting to feel a connection.
Describe your literary tastes.
Since my job is to explore and share British literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, my literary tastes can be a little… narrow? Let’s say focused. When I read a poem or novel as a researcher, I want it to reward my scholarly attention by showing me something compelling about history and ethics, form and aesthetics—about how people from two hundred years ago thought and felt and lived.
When I read for pleasure I favour contemporary literary fiction and poetry. I love shopping for new and used books. I will buy a new book in hardback—I will pre-order the book in hardback. I used to love going to readings and getting my copy signed. It may have just dawned on me that I associate reading for pleasure with buying myself presents.
What is your favourite independent bookstore in the whole wide world?
I love Paper Hound, especially now that they deliver by bicycle!
Where do you read at home?
I curl up on the corner of the couch that is beside the window. The building across the street has put up a bajillion holiday lights and, although they are a waste of energy in a warming world, I am enjoying how twinkly and festive they make my view.
What time of day do you do your best reading?
If I’m reading for work, the morning; if I’m reading for pleasure, the evening.
What book is next to your bed right now?
There’s a stack, but the top three are gifts from friends: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, My Private Property by Mary Ruefle, and A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt.
In My Private Property, one of the poems is preceded by an image from the poet’s journal of a “cryalog” in which Ruefle kept track of how many times per day she cried during a difficult year. Which is a lot of times! The poem that follows says. “The saddest thing is, now I find the cryalog very funny, and laugh when I look at it.” Being sad isn’t forever. A good attitude for pandemic life.
What was your favourite book as a child?
As a child I loved Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It was so violent. Wolves and wild dogs killing each other; Rikki-Tikki-Tavi destroying cobras. It felt like something I should not have been allowed to read and so the transgression made it all the more exciting. Richard Adams’s Watership Down is another book I loved, which is animated by similar undercurrents of brutality.
What did you read most avidly as a teenager?
Since reading Claire’s BOOK PERSON, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular type of YA novel that continues to be popular and that really spoke to teenage me in the late 90s/early 2000s. In these novels—Tamora Pierce’s series The Song of the Lioness and The Immortals; Robin McKinley’s novel The Blue Sword and its prequel, The Hero and the Crown; Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern and Harper Hall of Pern trilogies—there’s a young female protagonist living in a highly patriarchal fantasy universe, in all cases a mix of medieval and colonial-imperialist. There’s often magic and always dragons. The trick to all the stories is that, by some combination of magic and sheer force of will, the female protagonist gains the masculine-coded skills (horsemanship, sword-wielding, dragon-riding, etc.) necessary to beat some world-ending enemy. Claire mentioned Alanna, the hero from The Song of the Lioness, who trades places with her brother to secretly train as a knight. My impression of these books when I was reading them was feminist and empowering: girls can be just as good as boys.
But given the amount of energy these authors spend on world-building, it amazes me now that none of these books actually rewrite the script on gender and power. Binaries abound, and no one questions that boys’ activities (horses, swords, dragons) are boys’ activities; the only difference is the argument that some girls should be allowed to participate. Much of the narrative tension of these books comes from the protagonists’ distinctly feminine-coded inability to express themselves assertively or forthrightly. If only she would tell them who she is/ where she comes from/ what the problem is we think frustratedly to ourselves. Yet these novels only address the problem of women’s voices not being heard insofar as, once the exceptional protagonist gains the respect of the men in charge (and often ends up marrying one of them), she can then deliver the crucial message. All non-protagonist women and girls tend to remain subaltern.
Of course, these books were written in the 1970s (McCaffrey), 80s (McKinley) and 90s (Pierce), so what can we expect, right? Well, spurred last year by one of my brilliant supervisees at UCF, I read Octavia Butler for the first time and now know of at least one alternative (and there are definitely more). In the Earthseed novels, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), Butler isn’t interested in developing a female protagonist who’ll come to be celebrated by and within the status quo. Butler’s dystopic vision of California in the 2020s dispenses with a stable society at the get-go and allows her protagonist, Lauren Olamina, to emerge as a grassroots leader and truly radical thinker. I’m sure there’s lots of great commentary on this already, but the contrast got me thinking about how feminisms operate differently for different people in these YA novels. The white women authors I read as a teen see their protagonists as only needing better access to seats of power and decision making—just lean in! Butler, however, as a Black woman raised in an era of overt American racial segregation, knows that the problem inheres in the structures themselves.
Do you have a beloved under-the-radar author who you think more people should read?
Let’s read more poetry! Ian Williams is not under-the-radar (he’s the author of the Giller prize-winning Reproduction, a novel that will soon be moving from my husband’s nightstand to my own) but perhaps his poetry is. For anyone who wants to invest in a collection of contemporary poetry but doesn’t know where to start that’s not Rupi Kaur and her ilk, Williams’s Word Problems is smart, engaging, beautifully designed and typeset by Coach House Books in Toronto. It’s timely, important—and “gettable.” You won’t find yourself swimming through a murk of gnomic phrases. Williams is playful and clever without undermining the seriousness of his subjects (racism and surveillance culture; equity and equality; sexism; abortion rights; and lots more). Owning this particular collection will make you happy, I promise.
Other contemporary poets I love: Lisa Robertson, Jordan Scott, Sandra Meek, Sheryda Warrener and Maureen McLane (“Some Say” is a perfect poem).
If you want a little taste of British Romanticism, which is my area of expertise, an under-the-radar poet is Charlotte Smith. Married at fifteen, she had twelve children, went to debtor’s prison with her husband and children after he squandered all their money, and nevertheless wrote her way out it. This elegiac sonnet, “To Hope,” she wrote when she was in her mid-thirties.
Which book have you read the most times in your life?
I’ve listened to the audiobook of Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven hundreds of times. In fact, the first time I listened I’d taken it out of the library as a book on tape—eight cassettes that you had to keep track of! The Recorded Books Incorporated recording that they sell you on Audible, which I purchased in approximately 2008 (??) is the same one.
The story is an epic: massive in scope with lots of characters and interweaving plots. At first, the attraction for me was the horses—as a tween, I volunteered at a trail riding place in Calgary and took riding lessons as a teenager—but later it was the human intrigue that enchanted me. One character, the wealthy race-horse owner Rosalind Maybrick, I idolized as a twenty-something; I admired her unflinchingly perfect self-possession. Now though, on the cusp of thirty-five, I’ve been having a change of heart. Not too long ago, I was listening along and suddenly realized that Rosalind utterly fails to notice those who smooth her way through the world (maids, drivers, the race-horse grooms who bathe her Jack Russell when it gets dirty at the track). While Rosalind believes herself to be beyond reproach, from other characters’ perspectives—views to which Smiley does not give the reader access—Rosalind is a first-class bitch.
Who is the most memorable villain in fiction?
Our book club recently had a great conversation about two characters from Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, Alix and Kelly, who are villains without being evil, per se. That’s what makes a great villain, I think: someone whose actions disempower other characters in ways that puts them at odds with our protagonist, but whose complex motivations render them nevertheless engaging and even, against our better judgement, sympathetic.
What is the funniest book you have ever read?
John Irving’s The World According to Garp is funny-shocking; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is funny-grotesque; Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is funny-digressive; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is funny-sardonic; Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is funny-arch; Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here is funny-poignant. Lord Byron’s long poem Don Juan is extremely funny, both at the level of cadence and concept; in her poems, Aphra Behn’s double (sometimes triple!) entendres are witty and sly.
What is the most devastating book that you can think of?
Definitely the most devastating book I’ve ever read is Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, her Pulitzer-winning modern interpretation of King Lear. When the realization about what’s happened surfaces, you feel the presence of a pure and unshakable evil.
Runners-up include Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto and Forrest Gander’s poetry collection Be With.
Generally speaking, I'm interested in books you love, but I am also desperate to know: What’s a widely-praised, critically-acclaimed book that you hated?
Either I waited too long to read The Catcher in the Rye or not long enough. Reading it for the first time in my thirties, I found Holden Caulfield immensely bratty and uninteresting. This is a novel for teenagers, but perhaps in my eighties I can be charmed by him in the same way that my grandmother was so taken by all the cute men at my wedding?
Carmen wants to know and so do I: what are your 2021 reading resolutions?
I aspire to finish at least one non-fiction book (Veronica convinced me to pick up Say Nothing again). Attainable goals are good for my self-esteem, but if you think I should read more than one non-fiction book, please let me know what you recommend.
If you know a BOOK PERSON, please send them my way so I can pry into their shelves. All preferences welcome! And if you enjoyed this edition of BOOK PERSON, why not subscribe or share it with a pal by clicking these cheery buttons?