Reading List January 2017

  1. The Letters of Heloise and Abelard: A Translation of Their Collected Correspondence and Related Writings, Pierre Abélard, Héloïse d’Argenteuil, Bonnie Wheeler (Editor), Mary Martin McLaughlin (Editor) (Non-fiction, 2002)

  2. Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare (Theatre, 1589)
  3. Down Below, Leonora Carrington (Fiction, 1945)
  4. The Founders of the Western World: A History of Greece and Rome, Michael Grant (Non-fiction, 1991)

Héloïse

Reading the letters of Pierre Abélard, one gets a good sense of his character: he is pompous, entitled, and conceited.  His letters are close to unbearable.  Héloïse, by contrast, is much easier to read, and her letters rarely feel like manifestoes of self-importance, but the personal testaments to a woman under extreme circumstances.  Of course, they both went through horrific hardship.  Yet it is only Héloïse that I ended up having sympathy for, despite Abélard literally haing his genitals cut off, presumably unanesthetized.

Héloïse was between ten and twenty years younger than Abélard when they met, when he sought to seduce her for her class and intelligence.  He manipulated his way into her home and under the guise of lessons, began an affair with the much younger woman.  She then did what he wanted.  She entered a convent when he encouraged her too, though she resented being told to do so so soon before he entered a monastery (she was devoted to him and would have followed regardless, so why push her to do it so early?)  In their letters they discuss at length the place of marriage for women especially, yet she preferred to be Abélard’s mistress, bound by love, than wife, bound by institution. But is it romantic when the sacrifice was ultimately made for him alone, so that marriage would not mar his career? (by which I mean the initial act of denying marriage — he certainly suffered for this too).  She performed these acts of sacrifice out of love and devotion to an unlikeable, self-centered man (it’s really hard not to judge him), who was driven to begin their relationship out of his own pride and lust.  And she, in her letters, questions him on this: was it just lust?  Or did he actually love her?

Héloïse seems to be a woman trapped by many circumstances: she was a victim of her time, for certain.  But would her life have been better without Abélard?  What would her life have been like if a man hadn’t been so very determined to seduce her to satisfy his lust — would she have had any recognition today, or would she have had a traditional marriage, or would she have still ended up in a convent?  Both Abélard and Héloïse went through horrible things because of their relationship, but reading their letters it is difficult for me to see it as a relationship of true love and ill-fated romance, when the whole thing feels like the unfortunate consequences of male entitlement.

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Reading List 2016

All the books I read this year:

  1. Ether: Seven Stories and a Novella (Evgenia Citkowitz, 2010)
  2. Les Fleurs du Mal (Charles Baudelaire, 1857)
  3. Live or Die (Anne Sexton, 1966)
  4. All My Pretty Ones (Anne Sexton, 1962)
  5. The Wild Iris (Louise Glück, 1992)
  6. Firstborn: Poems (Louise Glück, 1968)
  7. Averno (Louise Glück, 2006)
  8. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (Jacqueline Rose, 1993)
  9. 4.48 Psychosis (Sarah Kane, 2000)
  10. Crave (Sarah Kane, 1998)
  11. Phaedra’s Love (Sarah Kane, 1996)
  12. Blasted (Sarah Kane, 1995)
  13. Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith, 1950)
  14. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963)
  15. The Book of Folly (Anne Sexton, 1972)
  16. The Death Notebooks (Anne Sexton, 1974)
  17. On Being Ill (Virginia Woolf, 1930)
  18. Fugitive Pieces (George Gordon Byron/Lord Byron, 1806)
  19. Cleansed (Sarah Kane, 1998)
  20. Play it As it Lays (Joan Didion, 1970)
  21. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
  22. The Vet’s Daughter (Barbara Comyns, 1959)
  23. The Complete Stories (Clarice Lispector, 2015)
  24. The Book of Repulsive Women (Djuna Barnes, 1915)
  25. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith, 1955)
  26. The Poems of Sappho (Sappho, ~600 B.C.)
  27. The Driver’s Seat (Muriel Spark, 1970)
  28. Illness as Metaphor (Susan Sontag, 1978)
  29. Rivers to the Sea (Sara Teasdale, 1926)
  30. Precious Bane (Mary Webb, 1924)
  31. Nightwood (Djuna Barnes, 1936)
  32. L’Ombilic des Limbes (Antonin Artaud, 1968)
  33. Le Pèse-Nerfs (Antonin Artaud, 1925)
  34. Van Gogh, le suicidé de la societé (Antonin Artaud, 1947)
  35. Love Songs (Sara Teasdale, 1917)
  36. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Joan Lindsay, 1967)
  37. Audrey at Home: A Kitchen Table Biography (Luca Dotti, 2015)
  38. Dark Elderberry Branch (Marina Tsvetaeva, 1923)
  39. Ariel (Sylvia Plath, 1965)
  40. Mad Like Artaud (Sylvère Lotringer, 2003)
  41. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)
  42. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Janet Malcolm, 1993)
  43. Collected Poems (Charlotte Mew, 1953)
  44. The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)
  45. Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella & Other Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (Angela Carter, 2008)
  46. A Century of Spells:More Than 100 Time Tested, Easy-To-Use Spells that Really Work (Draja Mickaharic, 1985)
  47. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb, 1992)
  48. Pilgrim (Timothy Findley, 1999)
  49. Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles, 1956)
  50. On Violence (Hannah Arendt, 1970)
  51. Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn, 2012)
  52. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911)
  53. Death in Venice (Thomas Mann, 1912)
  54. To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
  55. The Birds and Other Stories (Daphne du Maurier, 1952)
  56. Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (Tom Robbins, 1976)
  57. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins, 1859)
  58. Anarchism and Other Essays (Emma Goldman, 1910)
  59. Walden (Henry David Thoreau, 1854)
  60. Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters (Vincent Van Gogh, H. Anna Suh, Alayne Pullen, 2006)
  61. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Sylvia Plath, 2000)
  62. The Satyricon (Petronious, 66)
  63. Native Son (Richard Wright, 1940)
  64. Hollywood Babylon (Kenneth Anger, 1959)
  65. Twenty Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Marina Tsevetaeva, 2010)
  66. The Edible Woman (Margaret Atwood, 1969)
  67. Mephisto (Klaus Mann, 1936)
  68. The Cutting Season (Attica Locke, 2012)
  69. American Gothic (Robert Block, 1974)
  70. The Vegetarian (Han Kang, 2007)
  71. The Lives The Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (Darby Penney & Peter Statsny, 2008)
  72. In Evil Hour (Gabriel García Márquez, 1961)
  73. The Art of Cuisine (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec & Maurice Joyant, 1930)
  74. Witches and Witch Hunts (Milton Meltzer, 1999)
  75. The Owl Service (Alan Garner, 1967)
  76. Man’s Search for Meaning (Victor E. Frankl, 1946)
  77. The Blind Owl (Sadegh Hedayat, 1937)
  78. Venus in Furs (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, 1870)
  79. Carmilla (J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872)
  80. An Unquiet Mind (Kay Redfield Jamison, 1995)
  81. Perfume (Patrick Süskind, 1985)

Top 10 (chronologically):

  1. Les Fleurs du Mal (Charles Baudelaire, 1857)
  2. Dark Elderberry Branch (Marina Tsvetaeva, 1923)
  3. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith, 1955)
  4. The Vet’s Daughter (Barbara Comyns, 1959)
  5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)
  6. The Edible Woman (Margaret Atwood, 1969)
  7. The Driver’s Seat (Muriel Spark, 1970)
  8. The Wild Iris (Louise Glück, 1992)
  9. 4.48 Psychosis (Sarah Kane, 2000)
  10. The Vegetarian (Han Kang, 2007)

Breakdown:

I read mostly poetry and novels, slightly more novels than poetry collections, which was somewhat surprising as I had assumed that the reason I was getting through so many books was because I was “cheating” by reading poetry or other types of writing that are faster to get through.

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In terms of when the books I read were originally written, the 1990s and 1960s were tied.

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And in all cases, I read much more by women than by men, not necessarily consciously.  My interests have shifted enough that I rarely take interest in what men have to write about.

The Art of Cuisine

I will be trying some of the vegetarian recipes periodically, and so cannot comment on the quality of the food in this cookbook (I’m a bit short on funds and cooking is expensive).   Mostly this is just interesting, and a good read, for what people ate and how (that is, with upwards of 5 pounds of butter per dish).  The variety of food is amazing, as are the descriptions and quantities.  And the illustrations, of course.

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Here is an excerpt from my favourite recipe, ‘Stewed Marmots (Civent de Marmottes)’:

“Having killed some marmots sunning themselves belly up in the sun with their noses in the air one sunrise in September, skin them and carefully put aside the mass of fat which is excellent for rubbing into the bellies of pregnant women, into the knees, ankles, and painful joints of sprains, and into leather shoes.
Cut up the marmot and treat it like stewed hare which has a perfume that is unique and wild.”

That’s it, that’s the whole recipe.  For every fifteen normal recipes, there is one or two like this, which makes reading the whole book worthwhile even if you would not normally read (or skim) an cookbook cover to cover.

8/10

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From the State Hospital Attic

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I got The Lives They Left Behind from the library after reading a description that I found by chance: several hundred suitcases belonging to ex-patients were found in the attic of the abandoned Willard Psychiatric Centre in New York; this book uses these suitcases to explore the lives of patients and look more broadly at the state of psychiatry in the past.

At its base, it’s a very interesting premise: it allows for stories which would be otherwise untold to be heard, while the personal element of the patients’ suitcases (with photographs and descriptions of items such as handkerchiefs, clothing, photo albums, or letters) makes the stories more moving, in a way.  These aren’t just the stories of nameless masses, but of real people — nameless masses don’t keep sewing notions or silk gowns.  It’s the human interest touch.  And rather than making these personal stories simply individual cases, they are used to expand upon broader social issues, such as the place of gender, race, colonialism, immigration, trauma, and class in connection with diagnoses of mental illnesses (usually dementia praecox, or schizophrenia).  This was great!  Although I thought overall the book was not written that well (the tone felt too casual for my taste), I appreciated this look at intersectionality, which was insightful.  I also appreciated historical background on psychiatric facilities, medications, treatments, therapies, and so on, as well as the sensitivity with which the authors dealt with each patient referenced, attempting to understand what brought these people to Willard.

However, the biggest problem I had was with the way the authors seemed intent on almost denying that any of the patients were unwell.  The agenda of this book was clearly an anti-psychiatry one, and with good reason, but the point was largely that patients at Willard, where they were often kept for decades, if not until their deaths, should not have been at this hospital.  In some cases, this seems entirely fair: marginalized people who made rich, white, established Americans uncomfortable could be called crazy and locked up.  People with brief issues (one angry outburst, a night of drunkenness) would be condemned as incurable schizophrenics and given torturous treatments.  Patients who desired their freedom and showed no signs of any kind of mental distress would live out their lives and die at Willard.  There is no doubt that these people were harmed irreparably by the institution, and denied their freedom and often even health, such as in the case of patients given antipsychotics who developed permanent tardive dyskensia.  But a lot of the cases seem to describe people who were generally quite mentally ill and in need of care.  A patient with consistent delusions that he was Jesus Christ and that he must marry Margaret Truman, for example, was likely unwell.  Though this psychosis may have been triggered by trauma, and though he was mistreated, denied his freedom, and abused with violent therapies, it is evident that he required care and help, and was, from descriptions of his life before admittance to Willard, unable to care for himself and without anyone to care for him.  Yet the authors persist in writing in a way which suggests that the issue is not that this man, or other patients like him, are unwell and in need of care.

While the mistreatment and incarceration of people who are not mentally ill or whose mental illness can be explained by outside (that is, non-biological) causes was and is a terrible problem, the mistreatment and incarceration of people whose mental illnesses are biological or not brief, singular episodes is just as bad.  In an epilogue, the authors discuss how therapy can be helpful to patients, which is true, and without a doubt enforcing treatments which have horrific side effects and low chances of working is not helpful.  But it felt too much like the authors were overly biased towards therapy and community-based care rather than inpatient and medicinal treatments.  It is my opinion that it’s not really one or the other.  Really, to me at least, it’s neither.  Both talk therapies and medicine (as well as other treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy) have varying success rates.  Depending on where you live, all are far too expensive, while many treatments can have quite severe physical and mental side effects — they are not accessible and can make things much worse.  Until we have treatments with higher success rates and fewer negative side effects, I won’t consider mental health care to be advanced.  While this book shows the differences between how patients were treated decades ago and now, I am wary of thinking that things being worse then means things are good now.  Things are just less worse.

So overall: a very interesting book which does well in terms of intersectionality, and is a very fast read; overly biased but with good historical information.  6.5/10