Baker’s Dozen

Indian Novelist Anita Desai (Born 1937)

On this last day of November, I am happy to report that my month of reading only books by women authors was both highly successful and satisfying. In a post I made at the beginning of November, I wrote:

For the month of November, I will be reading only women writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the authors will be new to me; some of the books will be re-reads.I began by reading a short story collection entitled Dead-End Memories by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto.When I finish, I will re-read Joan Didion’s Salvador.

From there, a number of possibilities present themselves, including Virginia Woolf, Edwige Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Wisława Szymborska, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Freya Stark, Norah Lange, Dawn Powell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.I’ll just see where the spirit moves me. At the end of the month, I will summarize the discoveries I have made.

In the end, I came pretty close to my aim. Here is the final list:

  • Banana Yoshimoto, Dead-End Memories (short stories)
  • Joan Didion, Salvador (travel/history) – reread
  • Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (fiction)
  • Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (fiction) – reread
  • Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier (history)
  • Anita Desai, Journey to Ithaca (fiction)
  • Mary Austin, One-Smoke Stories (short stories)
  • Patricia Highsmith, Found in the Street (fiction)
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway (short stories)
  • Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (autobiography/fiction)
  • Norah Lange, The People in the Room (fiction) – reread
  • Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (autobiography/essays)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (noir fiction)

That makes a full baker’s dozen of thirteen books.

The best three were Jacob’s Room, Northanger Abbey, and Sleepless Nights. Writers I had never read before included Banana Yoshimoto, Elizabeth Hardwick (a real find!), and Edwidge Danticat.

I may well do this again next year. Too long I have been ignoring the real talent of great women authors.

Life Itself

Billie Holiday in Concert

In this month of reading only works by women authors, I have made an interesting discovery. The only works I have read this month that have the feeling of life itself are Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). 1920s London and Postwar Manhattan come alive in these books in a way that even James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses failed to with all the literary allusions.

Woolf and Hardwick make us feel present in a simple and direct fashion. It is almost as if they were writing their own autobiographies as they lived their lives. Sleepless Nights even reads like an autobiography. For instance, she knew Billie Holiday and writes about her as if she were a close friend:

A genuine nihilism; genuine, look twice. Infatuated glances saying, Beautiful black star, can you love me? The answer: No.

Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality.

She goes on for several pages about the singer, all of them more real and vivid than anything I have read about any performing artist.

In the same way, Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) make the reader feel he or she is walking the streets of the London of George V. One does not feel one is in the past: She makes the past feel like the present.

Even Marcel Proust, whose description of the states of mind of his characters is without peer, cannot put the reader on the street running for a trolley and registering the sights and sounds of the city.

I am not sure I have expressed myself properly. I will have to investigate the matter more deeply. Stay tuned.

“Wise and Most Possible”

It was one of the most meaningful Twitter posts ever written when Maya Angelou said, “‎The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.”

For the month of November, I will be reading only women writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the authors will be new to me; some of the books will be re-reads.I began by reading a short story collection entitled Dead-End Memories by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto.When I finish, I will re-read Joan Didion’s Salvador.

From there, a number of possibilities present themselves, including Virginia Woolf, Edwige Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Wisława Szymborska, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Freya Stark, Norah Lange, Dawn Powell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.I’ll just see where the spirit moves me. At the end of the month, I will summarize the discoveries I have made.

And there are sure to be discoveries. Already I love Banana Yoshimoto’s stories, which deal with subjects that men feel uncomfortable with. And that where the Maya Angelou quote comes into play.

The Januarius Project 2022

Near the beginning of every year, I set aside a month dedicated to reading authors I have never read before. The reason is to keep my book choices from becoming stale as I stick to the same set of “canonical” writers. So far this month, I have completed four books:

  • Pete Beatty’s Cuyahoga, a tall tale of Cleveland, Ohio (the city of my birth) set in 1837.
  • Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, a study of how the Marquis de Sade’s fiction morphed into modern-day porn.
  • Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another, a travel classic by a famed war correspondent and former wife of Ernest Hemingway.
  • Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston, a superb, but bleak neo-noir novel about a hit man on the run to a city about which he has fond memories due to an early relationship.

It’s still early in January. I am currently reading Megan Abbott’s Die a Little and have plans to read works by George Meredith, William Beckford, Walter Kempinksi, Sam Wasson, Lászlo Földényi, Ben Loory, Elizabeth Hardwick, among others. According to past experiences doing this sort of thing, I will end up liking about half of the Januarius finds enough to read other works by them.

One result is that I find myself reading more books by women authors, which is a good thing.

The Month of Reading Dangerously

Author Marilynne Robinson (Born 1943)

I dedicated last month to reading books only written by women. On March 5, I posted a TBR (To Be Read) list from which I would choose the titles I would undertake to read and review. As was typical, I wound up reading about half the books on the list, adding to them some last-minute choices. Here is the list of what I read:

  • Celeste Ng (United States), Little Fires Everywhere **** †
  • Joyce Carol Oates (United States), The Man Without a Shadow ****
  • Virginia Woolf (Britain), The Waves *****
  • Marilynne Robinson (United States), Gilead ***** †
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Russia), The Time: Night ****
  • Patricia Highsmith (United States), The Black House (Short Stories) *****
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Mexico), Gods of Jade and Shadow ***** †
  • Colette (France), The Pure and the Impure ****
  • Eve Babitz (United States), L.A. Woman ****
  • Sofi Oksanen (Finland/Estonia), The Purge **** †
  • Rosario Santos—Editor (Bolivia), The Fat Man from La Paz (Short Stories) **** †
  • Clarice Lispector (Brazil), The Hour of the Star *****

There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch, and four of the choices were superb (Woolf, Moreno-Garcia, Highsmith, and Lispector). Five of the books marked with a dagger [†] were by authors I had never read before (Ng, Robinson, Moreno-Garcia, and Santos). On my original TBR list, I thought I had never read any Ludmilla Petrushevskaya before, but I was mistaken.

I will continue to read more books by women authors than I have in the past, though I may not repeat the intensity of March’s reading project. It was an interesting experiment, as all the choices were pretty high quality.

The Month of Reading Women

This Month I Am Reading Only Books Written by Women, Such as Virginia Woolf

I read a lot of books, but I feel I have not given women authors their due. So far, I have read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and am within a few pages of finishing Joyce Carol Oates’s The Man Without a Shadow. Ng is new to me, but I have always loved Oates, though I haven’t nearly enough of her prolific works.

Among the books I will be selecting from for the rest of March (in no particular order):

  • Something by Svetlana Alexievich, most likely Secondhand Time [Russia]
  • Rosario Santos’s The Fat Man from La Paz: Contemporary Fiction from Bolivia*
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night* [Russia]
  • Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead* [USA]
  • Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity [France]
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Black House [USA]
  • Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place [USA]
  • Selma Lagerlof’s The Saga of Gosta Berling* [Norway]
  • Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [England]
  • Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star [Brazil]
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow* [Mexico/Canada]
  • Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women [France]
  • Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King* [USA]
  • Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive* [Mexico/USA]

Invariably, I will not read some of the above and likely add some other writers, such as Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Madeleine Albright, or Helen Hunt Jackson. It all depends on how I like the books I have selected.

Books marked with an asterisk [*] are by authors I have not yet read.

Women Writers

Vermeer’s Portrait of a Lady Writing

With a title like “Women Writers,” one might expect some heavy duty mansplaining about how women don’t really understand what life is about. Well, you won’t find it here. Even though, in the past, I have complained about fiction written by women being too “relationshippy,” I am beginning to appreciate the vision of the better women writers. Oh, there are plenty of distaff hacks, but I’m not talking about them here.

I have over the last few months read several novels written by women that managed to rock my world. They include:

  • Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov
  • Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
  • Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey
  • Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  • Marie NDiaye, La Cheffe and My Heart Hemmed In
  • Tara Westover, Educated

Consequently, what I have decided to do is devote the entire month of March to reading about a dozen books by women authors, half by authors I have never read before, the other half by old favorites such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Charlotte Bronte, and Patricia Highsmith. I haven’t decided which books yet, but there’s time to put the list together and let you know.

Currently, I am working my way through Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov, a novel written in English by a Russian writer about a Soviet art magazine editor in the mid-1980s whose life comes unglued because of all the changes that are taking place just before the collapse of the Communist Party. At one point, the main character, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, muses to himself: “No, never again would he dare to accept any certainty with that bovine sense of simply receiving his due….”

Similarly, I plan to reject that similar “bovine sense” of underestimating women writers as a matter of course.