Reading Challenge

Domenica Martinello’s chapbook, Interzones, was released by words(on)pages in April.

When we vaunt our yearly reading habits on social media like the Goodreads Reading Challenge, or with #95books, I think it’s less about vanity and more about a feeling of solidarity that comes with connecting to a community of book-lovers. The Reading Challenge is a fun way to track and remember books, share reviews, make recommendations, and discover new titles. More importantly for me, though, are the people who think reading is important and, for lack of a better word, cool. Not everyone is surrounded daily by the type of people who think reading is not only a worthy pastime, but a priority and something to structure your life around.

My appreciation of reading communities (similar but different from writing communities; focused primarily on digestion, contemplation, and appreciation rather than output or production) has grown acutely since I finished university. It’s easier now to recall a time when I hid novels behind textbooks and snuck them into bathroom stalls in high school because recreational reading was considered weird behaviour. I’ve felt similarly unseemly at certain jobs, receiving odd looks or intrusive inquiries when choosing to read quietly on my lunch break.

So there are worse things than bragging about reading, like literally anything else I can think of doing on social media. I will admit, though, that I’ve had to ask myself recently if I’m only setting myself up to feel inadequate. It’s hard enough not to think about my own deficiencies when considering the quantity and quality of reading material that some of my favourites like Nabokov and Sontag were devouring at an age when I was reading The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley series—slowly.  

On Goodreads I participated in the 2015 Reading Challenge, giving myself a modest goal of 50 books (compared to the more daunting #95books challenge). Spoiler alert: I might not even make it. If I keep up my pace for the month of December, Goodreads predicts I’ll be short four or five titles. Several things factor into my falling short: I simply forgot to notify Goodreads when I finished certain books, I’m a slow reader, I read a lot of content online, in magazines, or in literary journals, I finish books cover to cover even if I don’t like them, which ends up taking forever, and so on. I also didn’t include collections of poetry that I dipped into (there were many), only those which I read and considered in their entirety.

Despite being at risk of not achieving my goal, it’s been wonderful to stroll chronologically through my year of reading. Individually I’m reminded of specific moments, moods, and lines of thought. Collectively it’s interesting to consider how books create a backdrop for our year and perhaps influence the direction of our creative pursuits. I can’t wait to set myself another goal for 2016.

Amidst a sea of “Best Books of 2015,” please accept this ramshackle list of old and new, classic and esoteric, with a little added commentary.

(titles from earliest to most recent)

1. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

A Christmas gift from my boyfriend’s sister appealing to my mommy issues and my enjoyment of dense psychoanalytic theory, but in comic form! 5/5

Reading Challenge

Fun Home was released by Houghton Mifflin in 2006.

2. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Published first, the events in Fun Home predate the narrative in Are You My Mother? In many ways it’s a lighter, better organized book, though it arguably deals with darker subject matter. However, the impact of Are You My Mother? is visceral and open-ended. 4/5

3. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone to Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir is one of my favourite writers and thinkers, and apparently the world’s most adult-minded child. 4/5

4. Hellgoing by Lynn Coady

Though I felt pleasurably engaged while reading, none of the stories resonated with me after closing the book, in the sense that I cannot recall any character or plot clearly. 3/5

5. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I’m late to all the best parties. 5/5

6. Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

I pride myself on my distaste for Catcher in the Rye and enjoyed this begrudgingly; my used copy is falling apart and I must admit that I was quite tender with it. 4/5

7. Cosmo by Spencer Gordon

Cosmo contains multitudes. 5/5

8. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I had a nice conversation with another woman in the bookstore when buying this book. I enjoy the sense of solidarity Bad Feminist elicits, especially because it has received mainstream sanction, but I preferred reading Roxane Gay’s essays online. Reading them all side-by-side seemed to dull their impact. 3/5

9. The Virgins by Pamela Erens

I’m always interested in parsing how novelists deal with sex in Literary Fiction.™ The Virgins toes the line of acceptability, describing the sexual fumbling of adolescents in terms that are neither euphemistic or sexually explicit. Regardless, the novel’s unconventional narrative structure, it’s compelling characters, and its engagement with issues of gender, race, and class made for a very good read.  4/5

10. MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach

MFA. Honestly, with a few exceptions, NYC publishing culture seems white, male, and horrible. 4/5

11. The New Long Poem Anthology edited by Sharon Thesen

I read this anthology for a workshop on the long poem facilitated by Jay Millar through the Toronto New School of Writing. Highlights: Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” and Lydia Davis’ excerpt from Debbie: An Epic. A great selection overall.  4/5

12. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

I try not to be one of those people who giggle to themselves on public transit, but alas. 5/5

13. Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent by Liz Howard

Best collection of poetry published this year. Read my full review here. 5/5

Reading Challenge

Life Is About Losing Everything was released by House of Anansi in 2012.

14. Life Is About Losing Everything by Lynn Crosbie

This book made me hate myself and everyone around me, but I think that’s the point. 2/5

15. Whore by Nelly Arcan (trans. Bruce Benderson)

Arcan’s narrator Cynthia is the female counterpart to Dostoevsky’s in Notes from Underground; unreliable, loathsome, contradictory, erudite at times and totally manic at others. Arcan’s steam-of-consciousness is very lyrical, but repetitive. Uncomfortable thoughts are mulled over again and again in a circular obsession that feels stifling. It was not a pleasurable or titillating read, but as with Lynn Crosbie, I think that’s the point. 3/5

16. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Started reading this in the back of a cab, continued on a plane, finished on the metro. It’s a book that takes you places. 5/5

17. Crush by Richard Siken

Some of the poems in this collection felt like misses to me, but when they hit, they hit extraordinarily hard, crackling and sharp with desire. 4/5

18. Heroines by Kate Zambreno

A cross-genre blend of personal essay and literary criticism that hits the perfect balance. We need to keep examining the dichotomy between male genius and female madness in modernism, as well as the archival erasure of these women’s lives and stories. 5/5

19. Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

I read this out of curiosity after a heated conversation about “unsexing” female breasts, which made many men in the room react as if you were threatening to take a favourite toy away. Learned a lot of disturbing things about polluted breast milk. 3/5

20. Unleashed by Sina Queyras

I hate reading on a screen and wish I could get an edited selection of all my favourite blogs printed in book form. I enjoyed Queyras’ thoughts on visual art and her frequent museum outings detailed in the early days of the Lemon Hound blog. 5/5

21. Short Talks by Anne Carson

A formative re-read. 5/5

22. If The Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey

I enjoyed the collection’s mix of poetry and visual art but the poems themselves felt middling. A highlight was definitely Harvey’s suite of mermaid poems, which were recommended to me after a poetry reading.  3/5

23. In The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples by Jordan Lancaster

Read this on my aunt’s roof in Naples, quite literally in the shadow of Vesuvius. The mountains were smoking with forest fires. Got majorly sunburned. 5/5

24. Burqa of Skin by Nelly Arcan (trans. Melissa Bull)

Having just read Arcan’s Whore by a different translator allowed me to really appreciate how Melissa Bull deftly brings Arcan’s prose to life. Again, not exactly a pleasurable read, but startling and important. The insidious image of a little girl’s white tights bloodied at the knees still pops into my head as an example Arcan’s troubling brilliance. 3/5

25. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

Unlike anything I’ve ever read. My boyfriend has been reading this too and sometimes I get so unsettled by the book’s presence by the bed that I go hide it in the bookshelf. 5/5

26. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Bender’s magical realism is delicious. When you think you’ve grasped Bender’s rules, there’s a sudden and unwieldy twist. The novel is also packed with subtlety and tenderness. 4/5

27. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

Tried to read this the first time and couldn’t stand it. Picked it up a second time: pure lyrical erotic magic. 5/5

28. Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines

Another formative re-read. 5/5

Reading Challenge

The Year of the Flood was released by McClelland & Stewart in 2009.

29. Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I was initially annoyed that this book wasn’t Oryx and Crake all over again but I was quickly won over. Very strong for a “middle” book in a trilogy. 4/5

30. Seduction and the Secret Power of Women: The Lure of Sirens and Mermaids by Meri Lao 

“Research.” 3/5

31. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

Some books permit different ways of being, feeling, and writing in the world and this is one of them. 5/5

32. Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith

Already imagining my lesson plan for when I have this on the syllabus one day. 4/5

33. Prismatic Publics edited by Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne

An absolute must-read for all Canadian poets and critics. 5/5

34. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

I love Lorrie Moore. I enjoyed how this novel dealt with class, parenthood, politics, and racial complexity, and I felt moved to anger and even tears along with the novel’s narrator, but I cannot deny that A Gate at the Stairs has the most annoying last line of all time. 4/5

35. Pauls by Jess Taylor

At the launch of Pauls, BookThug’s fiction editor Malcolm Sutton compared reading Jess Taylor’s first collection of short stories to reading the early work of Alice Munro or Eudora Welty. I remember being a little put off by the comment, but he was absolutely right. 5/5

36. The First Bad Man by Miranda July

I received major stink-eye in a university creative writing workshop for professing my love for Miranda July. Well, I’m still buying whatever July is selling. 5/5

37. Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill

Coach House’s Exploded Views series is my favourite. 5/5

38. Late Company by Jordan Tannahill

I was moved while reading the play, but then saw it staged and cried all over myself. 5/5

39. Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage by Elaine Showalter

Too. Damn. White. The feminist intellectual heritage that I want to claim for myself is not solely made up of white women. 2/5

40. Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resumé, Ages 0 to 22 by MariNaomi

I was lent this book, like, six months ago. Sorry Abdul! 3/5

41. The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes

I guess the guilt factor is really kicking in as the year winds down, as this is another “lent-book” I should have given back months ago. Sorry Sham! 2/5

42. Rue by Melissa Bull

Read Jason’s review here! 3/5

43. Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot

“O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory!” Is that TS Eliot for “Happy Holidays”? Let’s say that it is. 5/5

Domenica Martinello is a Toronto-based poet originally from Montreal. She is the The Puritan’s head of publicity, and an interviews editor for CWILA: Canadian Women in Literary Arts. Her poetry chapbook Interzones was published in 2015 with words(on)pages.

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