Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

book book pages books browse
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If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.

I’m back!

…and newly married, honeymooned, and more relaxed than I’ve felt in what seems like years. So relaxed, in fact, that I can’t quite seem to focus on books just yet. But since I can never stay away from reading (or opinion-giving) for long, I’m sure you’ll see me back here soon. I’ve got a number of library holds and NetGalley requests pending that have me extremely excited, after all. I might do a post this week just about those. Hmmm…

In the meantime, here’s a photo of me and my wife taken just before our ceremony that’s giving me warm fuzzies every time I look at it:

Photo of the Brides

image description: a photo of two very happy-looking people in white poufy dresses. My now-wife Serena is on the left. She is wearing a veil, pearl earrings, and a pearl necklace. I am on the right wearing a tiara. We are embracing in front of a brick background.

Thanks for sticking around, dear readers, and I’ll see you soon!

Some recommendations

It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks here at Casa de Tiede! I’ve been picking up extra freelance work, my best friend got married, and my own wedding just keeps getting closer and closer. (Fact: 95% of wedding planning is staring at a calendar and crying.)

The last thing I’ve wanted to do lately is extra reading or writing, so this blog has been neglected. Luckily, I’ve been enjoying lots of other cool media instead, like:

BlacKKKlansman poster

BlacKKKlansman: an extremely intense and interesting movie about a black cop who infiltrates the Colorado Springs branch of the KKK. It’s based on a true story (!!!) and memoir by Ron Stallworth. I checked out the book from the library earlier this summer but had to return it before I could finish it. I really loved the movie adaptation, but be aware that it portrays racism and anti-Semitism in extremely frightening, realistic, and potentially triggering ways, including footage from last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. It has humorous and empowering moments, plus a great soundtrack, but it’s also tense and upsetting. Your mileage may vary.

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image description: a vintage photo of Cannonball Loop, Action Park’s loop-the-loop water slide that frequently trapped or injured guests.

Defunctland: On a lighter note, this astonishingly well-edited and in-depth YouTube series explores the histories of defunct amusement parks and rides, from terrifying regional attractions like New Jersey’s Action Park to high-profile failures at Disney and Universal Studios. Episodes range from 5-30 minutes. They’ll bring a fun mix of nostalgia and schadenfreude (at the expense of greedy park managers and CEOs) to your lunch break.

Cheapest Weddings promotional image

Cheapest WeddingsThis Australian reality show about people planning dream weddings on tight budgets is available to stream on Netflix. It’s funny, clever, and genuinely sweet. The couples never feel like the butt of the joke, even if their preferences are a little…eccentric, as with an unforgettable LARP wedding. I find a lot of reality TV to be cringey and mean, but this series is just right. (And I’m gleaning lots of DIY inspiration from it, too.)


What movies, TV, video games, and webseries have you been enjoying lately? I’d love to hear about them as I head into another stressful stretch. (I could use all the procrastination distraction help I can get.) In the meantime, happy reading, and expect me back on a regular schedule soon!

I’m obsessed with author bios, especially Shirley Jackson’s.

Today I ran across this charming piece about one of Shirley Jackson’s author bios over at Literary Hub. (Consider this another of my eternal plugs for signing up for their newsletter, which is great.)

TheRoadThroughTheWall CoverApparently the bio–to be included with Jackson’s 1948 novel The Road Through the Wall–was written by her husband, and it includes the following delightful details:

  • “She plays the guitar and sings five hundred folk songs…as well as playing the piano and the zither…”
  • “[She] is perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch…”
  • “She is passionately addicted to cats, and at the moment has six, all coal black…”
  • “She does not much like the sort of neurotic modern fiction she herself writes, the Joyce and Kafka schools…”

I’m a die-hard Shirley Jackson fan and would have loved the article no matter what, but while reading it I was especially struck by how much author bios affect my love of books no matter who the author in question is. Shirley Jackson’s witchy reputation made her career (even as it earned her plenty of angry letters from busybodies), and I’m sure that author bios have held uncanny power over many other authors’ careers, as well.

If an author has a long and quirky bio like Jackson’s, that tells you something about their fiction; Jeff VanderMeer has a particularly strange one included in the paperback edition of Annihilation, an extremely strange–and wonderful–book that definitely has whiffs of Jackson to it.

If their bio is barren of anything other than where they live and their previously published titles, that tells you something too: Rachel Kushner’s bio at the back of The Mars Room is no more than one dry sentence long, as if the publisher (and author) are asking you to view the book in a vacuum.

Bios rarely make me feel like I know the author better; rather, they add a particular flavor of mystery that, in its own strange way, can make or break my reading experience. They are an elaborate art form all their own. A long and flowery bio at the end of a book as harsh as The Mars Room would have felt tone-deaf in the extreme, but to be left with nothing at the end of Annihilation–or a Shirley Jackson novel–would be a missed opportunity.

Of course, fairly or unfairly, I put the author bios included in memoirs under even more scrutiny. I read Cheryl Strayed’s bio at the end of Wild over and over, trying to glean some extra mystery and meaning from a book that already offered plenty. I did the same to Leslie Jamison’s bio in The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, a harrowing memoir-slash-journalistic-deep-dive about alcoholism and addiction. I’m not sure what information I was trying to grasp: that she was okay? That she was writing from a place of healed authority? Either way, my expectations were unfair, but I tried to satisfy them anyway.

Such is the power of the author bio. I don’t understand them, but I can’t stop myself from poring over them.

You can read the rest of Shirley Jackson’s lengthy and mischievous bio, along with some other charming biographical details about her work, over at Literary Hub.

How do you combat reading slumps?

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You might have noticed that my blogging and reading have slowed down considerably of late–or you might not have. (I am my own harshest critic, after all, and just a tad self-centered about these things.) Either way, I’m undeniably in a reading slump right now and it’s hard not to get so irritated at myself that it makes the slump worse.

The fact that I run a book blog is just the cherry on top: I hate going too long without writing a post or two, and it’s hard to do that when I don’t have any fresh reading to inspire me.

I’ve noticed that I experience a couple of different types of reading slumps. In one, I’m busy or ill and simply don’t have the brainpower to read. Netflix and video games are my “comfort food” relaxation activities, even if I find reading to be more rewarding in the long run. When I’m too tired to read, I just…stop reading, tuning out in front of a screen instead, which causes a slump.

The other type of slump happens when I’m reading a bad and/or difficult (read: dense nonfiction) book. I’m gradually curing myself of the sunk cost fallacy–I’ve become much more willing to bail on a book if I’m not enjoying it–but again, book blogging means that I have to tolerate bad books a bit more than I would otherwise. I rarely bail on a book once I’m over halfway through, because then I’ve put in a bunch of time and won’t even get a review out of it.

Right now I’m in a dreaded double-slump: I’m exhausted and I’m reading something I’m not loving. Wedding planning is fun, but it’s a huge mental drain. Ditto my job right now: what no one tells you about going into freelance writing is that it’s also a lot of reading, for research and communication with clients and such. I’m also finding my current read to be shockingly bad (for the curious, it’s Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt) and it’s making reading a total chore while I rush to finish it before its library due date.

I know that this slump will pass in time because the wedding will be over soon (gosh! so soon! I have so much to do!!!), work will cool down eventually, and Invitation to a Bonfire will soon be a distant memory…but it’s so hard to not throw a mini reading tantrum. I want to be back to my regular avid-reading self right now, dammit!

Veruca Salt Tantrum Gif.gif

image description: a GIF of Veruca Salt’s epic tantrum from the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie.

So, I thought I’d throw it out to my readers: How do you deal with reading slumps? I’d love to hear about it, and if you have any surefire cures, I think leaving them in the comments should count as your good deed for the day. Don’t you?

On hiatus

Hello, good readers! As I’d mentioned a couple weeks ago, I’ve been extremely sick recently thanks no thanks to my endometriosis. This week I found out that the next step in my treatment will indeed be surgery!

On one hand, this is great news: it means I’ll hopefully be feeling better soon. On the other, it means I’m going to be very stressed, busy, and out of sorts for the next few weeks while I reshuffle responsibilities and recover. Oy.

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In light of that, I’m going to give myself a break and take some time off of blogging–probably about a month. Till then you can email me or find me on Twitter and Goodreads. (You didn’t think I’d stop spewing my opinions on the internet entirely, did you?)

In the meantime, may all your pre-orders arrive a few days early, may your library holds come due at a manageable pace, may all the covetable books be on sale, and may every story you read be magical. Ciao for now! ☺️

Tell me your favorite library stories!

row of books in shelf
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I’m feeling deathly ill (again) and there’s a good chance of major surgery on my horizon, so I’m not the happiest of campers today. To combat my icky mood, I thought I’d throw a library love fest on the blog today!

I absolutely would not be able to run this blog without access to the Saint Paul Public Library system. I spent the early part of this year stony broke, and libraries were (and are) a safe, free place to sit and work. They give me access to new book and movie releases without me needing to break the bank. (They have a particularly cool “Lucky Day” system where extra copies of books and movies are available when the hold/wait time would otherwise be prohibitively long.) Their selection is enormous, their request system is easy to use, and every branch I’ve been to is beautiful, well-lit, comfortable, and full of great staff. Almost every book in my Friday Bookbag is a library book!

I can’t sing SPPL’s praises enough, but they’re far from the only libraries that have nurtured me over the years. Here are a few of my best library memories:

  • As a kid, calling my local library a “lie-bury” for an embarrassingly long time.
  • Checking out a book from the Grand Rapids, Minnesota library and sitting on a nearby sunny pier for hours, watching the baby Mississippi River go by.
  • Helping to found Remer, Minnesota’s Centennial Library with the help of other awesome volunteers. Remer is home to under 400 people and it’s located far from any other library system, so the need for a volunteer-run library was enormous. I moved away a long time ago, but it’s still going strong!
  • Most recently, taking my little brothers to the enormous (and amazing) Hennepin Central library in downtown Minneapolis. My 10-year-old brother went nuts for the children’s section and my 13-year-old brother was literally speechless at their well-stocked, ultra-cool teen center. I was so proud :’)

What are your favorite library memories? Big or small, I want to hear about them. School libraries, little free libraries, bookmobiles, book clubs, and swaps are all fair game. Spill the beans in the comments!